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Series: Paul to the Thessalonians

We have begun unpacking the last set of instructions that Paul gives in 1 Thessalonians 5. And we saw how these various commands are held together by several themes. Last week the theme was relationships with one another in the church – with leaders, with each other and with those who struggle in various ways.

Today, in vs. 14c-15, the theme is relationships with everyone, those within and outside the church. Let’s read our passage together – “Be patient toward all. See that no one repays anyone harm for harm, but always seek to do good to one another and to everyone.” As we will see these verses deal with how to respond when you are wronged.

By way of  background to this let me make two points. First –

They were being persecuted

You remember that Paul had to leave Thessalonica before he wanted to because an angry mob chased him out of town. And even after Paul left, the Thessalonians continued to suffer for their faith.

Paul tells them in the letter:

  • “You received the word in much affliction” – 1:6
  • “You suffered” – 2:14
  • Paul was concerned that “no one be moved by these afflictions” – 3:3 – that is, give up.
  • “For when we were with you, we kept telling you beforehand that we were to suffer affliction, just as it has come to pass, and just as you know” – 3:4

Certainly they suffered rejection by family and friends. Perhaps they were completely cut off, or maybe just looked down on. They would have been rejected by larger society since they no longer worshiped idols, or glorified Rome. So they would have been accused of not being good citizens; traitors; misfits. They would have been insulted. There would have been economic consequences, perhaps the loss of business or a job. They may have been harassed, as we see in Acts 17 – intimidation or perhaps some were wrongfully arrested.

There’s no indication that anyone had been killed at this point, but they were involved in a serious struggle and were being wronged by non-Christians regularly. But also –

Some were wronged by fellow believers

We don’t know all that went on, but two issues are mentioned in the letter. In chapter 4:6 some were wronged through sexual misconduct. And Paul addresses this by instructing them, “that no one transgress and wrong his brother or sister in this matter.” He is most likely concerned over an issue of adultery.

In chapter 4:11-12 some were being taken advantage of. They were giving generously, but those that received it didn’t get busy working but became busybodies.

With this background in place then, we have –

Paul’s instructions

“14cBe patient toward all.” (some translations add “them” connecting it to the previous commands, but this word is not in the original). Patience here means long suffering, which means you can suffer for a long time. It really has to do with the capacity to control one’s anger; being long-tempered vs. short tempered. So the issue here is that when you are wronged, you don’t give in to anger and strike out.

When Paul says be patient with “all,” this would apply to either situation, persecution by unbelievers or wrongs by fellow believers.

15See that no one repays anyone harm for harm . . .” (Some translations have “evil for evil.” But the better translation is “harm for harm” or “wrong for wrong.” The first gives the impression that as long as you don’t do anything that is morally evil to someone, or as long as you are getting back at them legally it is fine. But Paul is concerned here with payback of any kind. It is another way of saying ‘and eye for an eye.’) We know how this works, you do me wrong, and I will do you wrong; you harm me, and I will harm you. This is talking about retaliation or vengeance.

In the Old Testament this was expressed by the phrase ‘an eye for an eye.’ Moses allowed this, although the intention was to limit retaliation. That is, instead of unlimited vengeance, now it had to be a proportionate response, only what is comparable to the wrong done to you. You destroy my eye, I get to destroy yours, not kill you.

In Proverbs we begin to see some qualification of this eye for an eye, harm for harm teaching. “Do not say, ‘I will do to him as he has done to me; I will pay the man back for what he has done.’” – Proverbs 24:29 (also 20:22)

It is Jesus, however, who decisively teaches us to set aside all retaliation. He moves things further in the same direction as Moses, but this time from limited retaliation – to no retaliation.

  • In Matthew 5:38-39 he moves beyond ‘an eye for an eye’ (talking about how we should not repay oppression by rebellion)
  • And in Matthew 5:43-44 he teaches us not to respond in kind to our enemies – those who harm us.

And Paul is sharing this teaching of Jesus with the Thessalonians.

He goes on to say, “. . . but always seek to do good to one another and to everyone.” The message is not just don’t return harm. Congratulations, you’re done. We are to seek to return good for harm.

This is also anticipated in Proverbs, “If your enemy is hungry, give him bread to eat, and if he is thirsty, give him water to drink . . .” – Proverbs 25:21.

However, once again, it is Jesus who decisively teaches us to return good for harm. Luke 6:27-28 – “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.” This counterintuitive logic goes against our anger; our flesh. We want to retaliate and we want to go beyond and eye for an eye. But Jesus says, give love for harm, good for hate, blessings for curses, prayer for mistreatment.

Now let’s step back and look at the passage as a whole and I want to make two points. Let’s read our passage again “Be patient toward all. See that no one repays anyone harm for harm, but always seek to do good to one another and to everyone.”

First, there are three steps in these verses:

1. Keep your anger under control. This is the long suffering part. You can’t do anything else until you do this.

2. Don’t return harm for harm, refrain from this and instead –

3. Seek to do good to them

Second, this teaching has no limitation:

  • All Christians are to live by this teaching: “no one” is to repay harm for harm. There are no exceptions.
  • We are to treat all people this way: Be patient toward “all”; there is to be no harm for harm to “anyone”; we are to do good “to one another and to all.” There are no exceptions.
  • And we are to do this “always” – in all circumstances and at all times. There are no exceptions.

This teaching is found throughout the New Testament

We have already seen this in 1 Thessalonians 5 and also Matthew 5 and Luke 6. Listen to the various ways it is stated elsewhere:

  • Romans 12:14 – “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.”
  • Romans 12:17 – “Repay no one harm for harm, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all.”
  • Romans 12:19-20 – “Beloved, never avenge yourselves . . . To the contrary, ‘if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink . . .’”
  • Romans 12:21 – “Do not be overcome by evil (so that you fall into the pattern of harm for harm), but overcome evil with good (that is, return good for evil).
  • 1 Corinthians 4:12-13 – Paul says, “When we are cursed, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure it; when we are slandered, we answer kindly.” (NIV)
  • 1 Peter 3:9 – “Do not repay harm with harm, or insult with insult, on the contrary, repay with blessing . . .” (NIV modified)

So this is both distinctive to Christianity, rooted in Jesus’ teaching and is absolutely foundational to how we are to act toward others. And if we ask the question –

Why is this so central to Christianity?

It’s an expression in our lives – our words and actions, of the truth of the gospel. God was long suffering and patient with us when we were his enemies; when we wronged him. God didn’t return harm for harm to us, otherwise we would have been destroyed. Rather God gave us good for evil. He gave his Son to die for us, though we did not deserve it. He has given us love and grace and blessing, in return for our sin and rebellion.

And what we have received from God, is what we are to give to others. Those who receive grace from God must give grace to others (Matthew 18). That’s why we return good for harm, love for hate, blessing for insults.

Let me end by saying –

This is really hard to do . . .

Let’s say someone insults you. It’s hard not to give into anger; to be longsuffering. It’s hard not to payback, even beyond an eye for an eye, much less respond with a blessing. Or if someone tries to hurt someone you love. And you restrain him. Well, this isn’t harm for harm. But once you do this, do you give in to anger and beat him in retaliation? In both of the cases we need grace from God to overcome our anger.

Let’s say someone steals something from you. Well, there’s anger. But then there is also the question of whether or how to use the legal system, which is by and large about an eye for an eye. We ought not use the legal system to return harm for harm for us. But sometimes seeking what is good for your enemy might well include them going through the criminal justice system. It depends on the circumstances . . .. And for our part what our motivation and purpose is. And so it’s difficult to make these kinds of decisions. We need wisdom from God.

Let’s say someone harms our country and there is a war. And let’s say you overcome your anger. Even so, it’s still hard. When everyone is stirred up and waving the flag and saying, let’s get them back, let’s kill our enemies – it’s hard to go against the stream to do what Jesus teaches and models for us. It’s hard to do what Paul teaches us here – to always to good to all. We need courage from God to stay true to Jesus.

Let’s say someone at church breaks a confidence. This person tells a bunch of people your deepest, maybe even most shameful secret. How do you respond? Will you gossip about them? Or, remembering how God has treated you will you find love and grace to respond by returning good for evil?

Perhaps you are in a situation where you have been wronged. I want to pray for you this morning – for God to help you, to give you grace to overcome your anger, wisdom to know how to return good for evil and the courage to do this even when everyone else thinks it is stupid.

William Higgins 

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