There Is Nothing Wrong With Payback
Contrary to the thinking of so many rather anemic 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.”
This 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 Savior, 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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