During the 1980s, a brother engaged in research asked me to locate the grave of John T. Poe, gospel preacher of the late 1800s, in Longview, Texas. When I phoned brother Hedge, he said, “Yes, I know where he is buried and I also knew him in person. I was a very young man at the time that brother Poe was in his eighties.” The tombstone read: “John T. Poe; b., 30 August 1836; d., 23 December 1917.” At one corner of the flat tombstone was a marker labeled, “C.S.A.” John T. Poe was severely wounded at the Civil War battle of Glorieta Pass in New Mexico in March 1862, but survived both his wounds and Union captivity, before being paroled back to Texas. He was always a seeker of truth.
After the Civil War, he kept up his Bible study until he discovered that baptism is essential to salvation. It wasn’t long before he was defending the truth against the popular doctrine of “Once Saved Always Saved.” People recognized his ability to speak and defend the truth, and he was called upon to fill pulpits in the East Texas region. Like the apostle Paul’s tent-making, John T. Poe was a watchmaker by trade, but a preacher of the Word for the rest of his life.
As we stood at the grave, brother Hedge told me a story that has been burned indelibly into my mind. Brother Poe was preaching a sermon against the use of instrumental music in worship. It was a heated controversy among churches of Christ in the late 1800s. As the audience departed the building, a man walked up to brother Poe and spit in his beard. Brother Poe retrieved a handkerchief and cleaned it off. Then looking intently at the man, he said, “I wish I could wipe the sin from your heart as easily as I wiped the spittle from my beard.”
I can think of a lot of responses I would have made to that brother, but the nobility of brother Poe’s response isn’t among them. My first reaction would be the satisfying sound of a fist crunching a nose. But if we are truly Jesus’ disciples, we will, like Brother Poe, aim for the heart and not the flesh.
Love does no harm to his neighbor (Rom 13:10). It is a noble sentiment, but hard to do when someone spits in your face. We must not repay evil for evil (Rom 12:17). Rather, we are to set our minds on doing what is noble and praiseworthy in the sight of all men. All men looking on and judging can see the superiority of brother Poe’s response to the baser instincts of our desires. When Paul commanded “give thought” in v17, the Greek word can be rendered “think beforehand.” Our minds must be made up before the heat of the moment arrives. If not, our fists are likely to do the talking instead of a disciple’s heart.
All men cannot be lived with peaceably. But the commandment regards that which we control: our minds and actions. We cannot control others, but we must control ourselves. Our words and deeds can escalate tensions, or they can calm situations and gain the thoughtful hearts of others. We must be peace-makers (Matt 5:9), not merely “peace-wishers.” We must be “peace-doers.” And that means we will not avenge ourselves when we are hurt by others because that is God’s arena, and His alone, to mete out vengeance. We tend to go too far and exact several pounds of flesh. We must “give place” to Him to work out justice in His righteous wrath.
Remember the example of Jesus (1 Pet 2:23)! Remember, too, that we are to help save the world. Our selfish reaction in the heat of anger can do such harm to the cause of Christ that we will never gain the salvation of the recipients of our vengeance. I shudder to think of how many ill words and worse actions have been aimed by me against those who have injured me. I will never be able to gain their good-will again so that they might hear the saving gospel. By my vengeance they may have concluded that the God I affirm to follow is like me!
We are to actively influence our enemies for good. We are to relieve their thirst and hunger (v20), these being fundamental to life’s existence. By implication, any lesser necessities are ours to serve as well. In so doing, we will “heap burning coals on our enemy’s head” (Prov 25:21-22).
I think it wrong to see this as an allegorical metaphor for our enemy’s “burning shame and remorse.” “That is simply a more refined form of revenge” (James D.G. Dunn). Paul doesn’t mean for us to delight in doing good to our enemies so we can think “Boy, I heaped burning coals on his head that will make him squirm from now to next Tuesday.” The Targum of this Proverb adds after this curious phrase: “and God will hand him over to you, or will make him your friend.” The phrase was to be understood as a beneficial act. A clear and abrupt change of mind is brought about by an act of love. Let us not be conquered by evil. The present tense verb calls for dedicated persistence to this noble end. Like brother Poe, let us live with a disciple’s heart and not by our fists.
Chuck Durham / Twin City church of Christ