“Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse.” (Romans 12:14, NASB95)
In Romans 12:13 we were encouraged to ‘practice hospitality’ (NAS) or in the English Standard to ‘seek to show hospitality.’ This same Greek word translated ‘practice’ or seek’ is also used in our verse for today. Here it is the word ‘persecute.’ The Greek word diōkō is used in both places and it has the meaning of following after or pursuing with zeal. In one case (verse 13) we are to be people given to following after or pursuing hospitality in our relations with others. We are to wholeheartedly pursue treating people warmly. In verse 14 we are instructed how to respond when people do not treat us in that same manner, maybe even with hot tempers or harsh actions.
The instruction in this case is that we bless them, and there is no question about the word bless. Its meaning is pretty consistent. It means to praise, celebrate with praises, invoke a blessing, ask God’s blessing, pray God’s blessing, cause to prosper, or otherwise to be favored—blessed. When people respond to us in an unloving and maybe even aggressive manner, our response is not to return their same kind of action in a kind of tit for tat way or to even wish evil on them, but to return their unloving actions with the love of God.
Jesus Himself set this for us as an example. In 1 Peter 2:23 we read, “and while being reviled, He did not revile in return; while suffering, He uttered no threats, but kept entrusting Himself to Him who judges righteously.” (NASB95) Jesus had the authority and power as God to take action Himself, but as man He chose to entrust Himself to God and His hand over Him so that His ultimate purpose for Christ’s coming might come to pass. Jesus knew why he came and He kept His eyes on the Father who would ultimately bring it all to pass, even His righteous judgment leading to some being saved and others not. Paul who wrote this letter to Romans was one of those who persecuted or pursued after Christians, and in so doing even Christ Himself, and we know what God did with Him in the end.
The account of Paul’s salvation is told in Acts chapter 9, and in Acts 22 we have a record of Paul retelling it in the form of a testimony of the transformation God worked in him. “I persecuted this Way to the death, binding and putting both men and women into prisons, as also the high priest and all the Council of the elders can testify. From them I also received letters to the brethren, and started off for Damascus in order to bring even those who were there to Jerusalem as prisoners to be punished. But it happened that as I was on my way, approaching Damascus about noontime, a very bright light suddenly flashed from heaven all around me, and I fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to me, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?’ And I answered, ‘Who are You, Lord?’ And He said to me, ‘I am Jesus the Nazarene, whom you are persecuting.’” (Acts 22:4–8, NASB95)
Paul knew the incredible transforming power of the gospel to change those who were once persecutors of Christians into followers of Christ. And in knowing this, he instructs us to be careful how we respond not only to one another but to all people. And even in doing this we have a corporate responsibility to encourage and to help each other to do likewise. “We urge you, brethren, admonish the unruly, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with everyone. See that no one repays another with evil for evil, but always seek after that which is good for one another and for all people.” (1 Thessalonians 5:14–15, NASB95) In this passage we not only have the ‘one another’ referring to other believers, but we also have ‘all people’ referring to (of course) all people, and we are even to help each other in doing so as a part of the whole work of building one another up to maturity.
Verse 14 has another one of those put off and put on contrasts founded in an accurate understanding of who God is and who we are as His children. Just as Christ set an example for us and did not revile in return, but went to the cross that those who persecuted Him might be saved, we likewise are to consider Him in how we respond to others. We are not to return evil for evil, but good instead—praying and acting in such a way in response that we point people to our God and pray His Spirit change their hearts and minds.
“To sum up, all of you be harmonious, sympathetic, brotherly, kindhearted, and humble in spirit; not returning evil for evil or insult for insult, but giving a blessing instead; for you were called for the very purpose that you might inherit a blessing.” … ““He must turn away from evil and do good; He must seek peace and pursue [diōkō ] it.” (1 Peter 3:8-9, 11, NASB95)