Vengeance is one of the primal urges of human beings. When someone wrongs us, our first thought is usually that we should pay him back for what he has done. Our love for retaliation in kind has even entered our everyday language, appearing in phrases such as “Revenge is sweet.”
The Christian ethic, however, stands against this urge for personal vengeance. Paul says in today’s passage that no one should repay anyone “evil for evil” (1 Thess. 5:15). This is a natural outflow of his instruction that we show patience to everyone (v. 14), for it takes a great deal of patience with wrongdoers not to seek to avenge ourselves when we have been sinned against. Paul’s teaching basically summarizes what Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount, especially when we consider that Paul also tells us to seek to do good to one another and, indeed, to everyone (v. 15). Jesus, after all, exhorts His disciples to turn the other cheek and to go the extra mile even for our enemies (Matt. 5:38–42).
It is important to understand that neither Paul nor Jesus is saying that Christians should never seek the punishment of evildoers or that we should simply let people abuse us. The emphasis is on not responding in kind to personal insults, as the striking of the cheek that Jesus mentions in the Sermon on the Mount is a euphemism for put-downs. In other words, when we feel that our honor has been assaulted by others, when we have been insulted or otherwise harmed in ways that fall short of criminal activity, we are not to seek revenge. However, it is appropriate to take matters to the civil authorities in the case of abuse and other criminal offenses. The church must get this right, for we invite others to dishonor the name of Christ when we do not protect God’s children from violence, particularly when we fail to protect the defenseless among us and do not call upon the civil authorities to investigate criminal offenses in the church when such investigations are mandated by the magistrate (Rom. 2:23–24; 13:1–7).
Not only must we refrain from personal vendettas, but we are to do good to everyone, even to those who are against us (1 Thess. 5:15). John Calvin comments, “We must not merely refrain from inflicting vengeance, when any one has injured us, but must cultivate beneficence towards all.” Only as we walk in the Spirit, seeking strength to obey Christ, will we be able to do such good.