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There Is Nothing Wrong With Payback

Mar 16, 2015

Contrary to the thinking of so many rather anaemic Christians today, in both Testaments the idea of God’s just judgment on the wicked is held up as something to take heart in, to celebrate, and to help us to persevere in the face of persecution.

It is meant to give believers hope, encouragement and steadfastness as we experience various forms of opposition, hatred and abuse. The knowledge that the enemies of God will one day be repaid for their evil is meant to give us strength to carry on.

For me this is a tremendous biblical truth. And it was for the biblical writers as well. There are hundreds of such texts which speak of God vindicating his people and routing his enemies. This is good news indeed, as I discuss in detail here: billmuehlenberg.com/2014/09/03/on-having-enemies/

Given all the intense persecution of Christians overseas, especially in Muslim-majority countries, and the increasingly ugly anti-Christian bigotry and hatred in the West, it is worth looking again at some of these passages. Here I will simply dwell on two: one for each Testament.

At the end of the Hebrew Bible we have these incredible words in the book of Malachi:

Surely the day is coming; it will burn like a furnace. All the arrogant and every evildoer will be stubble, and the day that is coming will set them on fire,” says the Lord Almighty. “Not a root or a branch will be left to them. But for you who revere my name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its rays. And you will go out and frolic like well-fed calves. Then you will trample on the wicked; they will be ashes under the soles of your feet on the day when I act,” says the Lord Almighty. (Mal. 4:1-3)

This is given as a promise, as something to look forward to, as something to be grateful for. It tells us that payback is coming. God’s enemies will finally meet their just judgment. Douglas Stuart comments: “The coming Day of the Lord will provide what the righteous have been hoping for: vindication of their faithfulness over against those who have consistently ignored and/or violated Yahweh’s covenant (v. 15) and in the process ‘overruled’ (v. 13) Israel’s God.”

christThis passage is simply the culmination of hundreds of such texts found in the Old Testament. But this is certainly not just some OT attitude which is done away with in the New Testament. We find the very same thing stated there as well. One simply has to read the book of Revelation for example.

But let me focus on just one passage from Paul. In 2 Thessalonians 1:3-10 we read about God’s final judgment and the revelation of his glory:

We are bound to thank God always for you, brethren, as it is fitting, because your faith grows exceedingly, and the love of every one of you all abounds toward each other, so that we ourselves boast of you among the churches of God for your patience and faith in all your persecutions and tribulations that you endure, which is manifest evidence of the righteous judgment of God, that you may be counted worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you also suffer; since it is a righteous thing with God to repay with tribulation those who trouble you, and to give you who are troubled rest with us when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with His mighty angels, in flaming fire taking vengeance on those who do not know God, and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. These shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power when He comes, in that Day, to be glorified in His saints and to be admired among all those who believe, because our testimony among you was believed.

We see here the same promises of hardcore judgment to come. The righting of every wrong – along with the rewarding of every right – is something all true Christians should desire and look forward to. The idea that justice will prevail is one of the greatest themes found in the biblical storyline. Gordon Fee comments:

In effect Paul simply appeals to God’s justice found in the Old Testament in the lex talionis, the law of just retribution. Thus God’s “just” dealings in this case are expressed in terms of what the Thessalonian believers have been experiencing – “affliction”, which is what God will eventually mete out on their persecutors. In effect, therefore, this clause serves as the thesis sentence for all that follows. For the Thessalonian believers who are being persecuted by their fellow townspeople, God’s justice will take a twofold form: “affliction” for those who are “afflicting” you, and “rest” for you who are being “afflicted”.

As Gene Green remarks, “Those who have rejected God and his message will not escape judgment – God is the Avenger (1 Thess. 4:6). This vengeance is not simple retaliation nor an irrational outburst of anger but an execution of God’s just judgment (vv. 5-6).”

He notes how deeply held in the ancient world were the concepts of justice, reciprocity, retribution and reward. The Thessalonians would have been frustrated by their treatment, wondering where their vindication was. “But the promise held before them is that those who are presently under no threat of human justice will not escape the just vengeance of God, because the root cause of the believers’ suffering is the unbelievers’ rejection of God himself.”

Or as Gary Shogren comments, “Throughout this chapter, the apostle carefully distinguishes two groups: those who will be accounted worthy of the kingdom and those who have rejected the gospel (1:8) and will face God’s wrath. His anger falls most strongly on those who actively persecute his people (1:6), since the enemies of the church are by extension the enemies of God.”

Peter Adam, commenting on the Malachi passage discussed above, refers to this 2 Thess. 1 text as well. This is what he writes:

There are strong words! They do make it clear that God will make the punishment fit the crime, and will ‘repay with affliction those who afflict you’. I find these words of great comfort when I think of those countless believers today and in the history of Christianity who have suffered persecution, privation, torture and death for the sake of Christ, and who have endured watching their families and friends suffering the same afflictions for Christ’s sake. I want God to reward them. I want God to avenge them. I want God to make it unmistakably clear to their persecutors the awful things they have done. I remember the words of John Paton, one of the first missionaries to Vanuatu, then called New Hebrides. When facing death, he said to his attacker, ‘If you kill me, God will judge you!’ An appropriate warning: God will vindicate his people.

As I say, this is good news indeed. Justice will be served. Those who refuse to accept the mercy and grace of God now, but prefer to attack God’s people instead, will one day be dealt with. Thus they can either come to Jesus now as Saviour, or they will have to face him later as Judge. It is their choice.

We of course can pray that these persecutors and enemies of God and his people repent and come to be reconciled to God in Christ. But for those who refuse to do so, the good news – the great promise – found throughout Scripture is that just judgment is guaranteed.

Thus we exalt in a God who is not only a God of grace and mercy, but who is equally a God of justice and wrath.

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10 Responses to There Is Nothing Wrong With Payback

  • and oh boy, what a day that will be when we all give account for the deeds done in the body…

    Along with that, we ought not to forget the immediate judgment of God such as Ananias, Herod and many others who experienced serious or partial judgment from God.

    This should make us walk in the fear of the Lord and I foresee we shall see many more of these immediate judgments as the days grow darker.

  • Just read this earlier today…
    from Psalm 145, v20,
    “The Lord protects all those who love Him, but He destroys the wicked.”
    Such a wondrous truth even though the ultimate protection is spiritual and for eternity in spite of persecution and even, for some, murder. Likewise the final destruction is also spiritual and complete.

  • The Church and the world of injustice needs to hear this wakeup call message otherwise it will be too late for people to repent of their sins and wicked ways when the Son of Man who is the Lord of justice who will come in clouds with great power and glory to vindicate his people with his just justice.

    The Lord God doesn’t enjoy watching anyone die, so repent and turn back to Him and live! As He lives, He takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that the wicked person should turn from his way and live!

  • Hi, Bill. Thanks for your timely article. More and more I find myself praying that God would exact judgement NOW on those that are persecuting and slaughtering Christians, Jews and any anthers that won’t accept the teachings of Islam. It is very obvious that Satan, knowing his time is getting shorter, is working furiously through Islam to confound and deceive the Western nations into thinking it would be a better choice than Christianity and many people are blindly falling for it having turned their backs on the Church and morality. It may be that God is allowing all this as a wake up call both to weak Christians and the secular West that those who would forsake the righteousness and long suffering of God may get the alternative they seem to be clambering for. Your article has given me some comfort to think I might not be praying amiss in asking for divine retribution on His enemies NOW.

  • It is never in doubt that the day of judgement will come. What troubles me is the urge to pray for retribution. Vengeance belongs to our Lord. Prayer is for worship. There is no time to look for the splinter in our brothers’ eyes. All energy must be devoted to log in our. Those of us on earth must look to living a righteous life: caring for our neighbours, forgiving those who have wronged us and keeping the light of our faith alight for we know not the day nor the hour.

  • George, a bit of caution might be in order.

    I our local fellowship groups, we are currently studying the Beatitudes and this week takes us from

    “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the land”

    to Psalm 37 which sets out God’s judgement on the wicked for sure, but also says

    “Do not fret because of evildoers”

    “Wait patiently for the LORD”

    and

    “Trust in the LORD and do good”

    We don’t have to become impatient at God’s timing of judgement.

  • Thanks George. I am with you. See my comment below to Edwina.

  • Thanks Edwina. But actually such prayers made by individual believers are 100 per cent biblical. Consider the lament and imprecatory psalms, which make up the bulk of the Psalter. These were pleas for God to vindicate his people and to act against His/their enemies. And of course the psalms were song as worship to Yahweh. So it is fully appropriate to pray this way. I discuss this more fully here: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2014/09/03/on-having-enemies/

  • Commenting on your last paragraph Bill, Jesus bids his followers to pray for their enemies. I wonder what influence the prayers of the believer had in Heaven when they prayed for Saul and Jesus confronting him on the road to Damascus? I confess I have spent too little time praying for such ‘enemies’ but will address it. It must be starting to work as I actually prayed for Obama today with conviction!

  • Thanks Keith. I often pray that God would improve or remove such people – a biblical sort of prayer!

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