A few days before preaching the end of Joel 3, I told my 6-year-old son Johnny that I would be preaching about God as our avenger. His eyes lit up with unusual interest. I naively thought to myself, You never know what Scriptures will capture the attention of children. Then he asked excitedly, “You mean like the Hulk?” To which I responded, “No. Not that kind of Avenger. They’re posers. Jesus is the ultimate avenger.”
I should confess that I too probably thought more about the Hulk and Ironman as avengers than the Lord as my great avenger. Joel 3 ends with Yahweh saying, “I will avenge their blood, blood I have not avenged.” The idea of an avenger is tied to the six cities of refuge God created throughout Israel to ensure a fair trial for manslayers and protection for those who accidently killed someone. At that time, the family sent an avenger to repay the “innocent blood,” usually the closest of kin, to repay life for life. The manslayer who fled to the city of refuge received God’s protection from the avenger. If he proved the death was accidental, he could live in the city of refuge until the high priest died, at which time the avenger no longer had a right to kill him.
Maybe this background hits your modern ears as a an antiquated, brutish, or angry system of justice irrelevant to our culture. We pride ourselves on national defense, police, judges, and lawyers set in place to ensure the right to a fair trial founded on the basic belief that the accused is innocent until proven guilty. Yet, in Romans 12:19-21, Paul encourages all those who have placed their faith in Christ that God is their avenger too, saying:
Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay,” says the Lord. To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
I’m sure the gospel implications are already strumming deep in your soul. Left to ourselves we are all spiritual refugees guilty of taking innocent blood, and we’ve fled the wrath of God to Jesus as our ultimate city of refuge. Now that Jesus, who is also our great high priest, has died for us, we have forgiveness with God. In Christ, great sinners receive God’s protection from all of their enemies. And, catch this—the avenger now avenges us! Because God is our avenger, we don’t have to be angry any more. We can overcome evil with good, trusting that we don’t have to win anymore—Christ is victorious. God will usher in perfect justice for his people.
This hope carries massive implications for our daily lives. When your husband tells you you’re not the woman he wants with his words or actions, you don’t have to respond by reminding him how many pounds he’s gained or what a jerk he is. You can tell him you will love him because Christ has loved you. When your kids tell you they hate you and your God, you don’t have to cut them off. When you are driving down the road, and someone in a 2012 Ford F-150 dually with extra lift and a license plate that begins XLI screams at you (I’m not saying this has happened), you don’t have to scream back at him or give him a dirty look; you can pray for him. When your parents make rules that seem oppressive, you can obey them and pray that God will change your heart or change their rules. If they are non-Christians pray your obedience would woo them to Christ. When your boss demeans you in front of the entire office, you can trust that Christ was humiliated for you so you can be humiliated for him. When you are older and younger people don’t respect you in the way that the Bible commends, you can faithfully seek to encourage them spiritually even when they fail to appreciate your efforts and maybe even seem disrespectful.
The most profound implication of God as our avenger might be felt more acutely by victims of great sins. If you are the family of an Iraqi beheaded for his Christian faith, or a little girl whose been sold into sex trafficking, true justice is impossible in this world. We ought to seek justice as far as we can in this life for victims of great crimes. But there’s a hard limit on the extent to which we can bring justice to these kinds of situations. There is real potential in these moments to want to repay evil with evil. No justice, however, brings the Iraqi wife’s husband back to her. We need something more than a powerful avenger who merely smashes things. No judge can return all that has been taken from the abused little girl.
This world simply doesn’t provide any hope of true restitution or justice for victims who have experienced great sins. But the gospel promises a God who himself is our avenger. He will bring ultimate justice that doesn’t merely seek an eye for an eye but promises true and full restoration of all that was lost. No other news trumps that for those whose “innocent blood” has been spilt.