How to Overcome Evil Part One

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Romans 12:21 NKJV

Do not be overcome by evil but overcome evil with good. 

The Problem of Evil
For centuries philosophers and theologians have wrestled with what is called, “The Problem of Evil.”   If God is all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-loving, why does He allow evil to exist in the hearts of people? This is an unsolvable question far beyond my abilities to tackle in this or any other space.  Evil exists and Jesus spoke to it.  More than that, He overcame evil at the cross and at the empty tomb.  When we follow Jesus, He sends His Holy Spirit to abide in our hearts giving us the power to overcome evil.  How do we do that?  Do we use our personal powers, personality, influence, wealth, politics, knowledge, wisdom, force…? On and on we could go describing the human arsenal available to us but there is really no point in that.  Our friend, the Apostle Paul, points us in a different direction, as he leads us to an entirely different arsenal. “We do not war according to the flesh.” Our weapons are not human in source or substance.  Instead, they are “mighty through God” and entirely sufficient to “pull down strongholds.” [1]  In simpler terms, Paul tells us that this a spiritual warfare that can only be won using spiritual weapons. The more common weapons of human conflict will not overcome evil.  So, what are these spiritual weapons and where can we find them?  Also, the Apostle calls us to “do good.” How can we do that?  What are the tools of this work? I will conclude this essay with a visit to our Calvary-cleansed, Spirit-empowered arsenal and tool shed.  First, we need to explore how this unusual plan for a victorious outcome  came to Paul and to us.

Saul of Tarsus and Stephen the Deacon
Historians tell us that Stephen, one of the first men chosen as a deacon, was a Greek, or Hellenistic, Jew, as his Greek name would indicate.  He was chosen to see that the Hellenistic widows received the assistance given to the other widows.  His service went far beyond that as he became one of the first evangelists telling everyone who would listen about Jesus.  Miracles, signs, and wonders were a part of his ministry, and many people followed the Lord and embraced the New Covenant.  This made him a prime target of the leaders of the Old Covenant.  Part of that leadership team was a young Pharisee from Tarsus, a major city in the Roman province of Cilicia.[2] Saul, as he was then known, was raised in that city and probably attended their prestigious university and learned his trade of tentmaking.  He was then transferred to study under the renowned teacher Gamaliel in Jerusalem.  Completing this instruction, he went back to Tarsus as a leader of the local community.  After the Day of Pentecost, he returned to Jerusalem to become a member of the Sanhedrin.  While he was away, Jesus had finished His earthly ministry and the Holy Spirit had begun His ministry through the church.

Their histories put Saul and Stephen in competing factions of Jewish life.  Saul became a leader of traditional worshipers who sought to stamp out those who were deceived into following this new Jesus cult and Stephen was a leader not only of Hellenistic Jews but of all the followers of Jesus. As Saul grew in power and influence—the human weapons and tools—Stephen was increasing in the power if the Spirit—the Spiritual tools and weapons.  Conflict between the two was inevitable.

As Saul observed the life of Stephen, he saw something in his life and countenance he had never seen before.  There was a peace and presence about the man that was from another world.  A trusted commentary tells us more.

His importance is stamped on the narrative by a reiteration of emphatic, almost superlative, phrases: “full of faith and of the Holy Ghost,” Acts 6:5, “full of grace and power,” Acts 6:8, irresistible “spirit and wisdom,” Acts 6:10, “full of the Holy Ghost.” Acts 7:55. He shot far ahead of his six companions, and far above his particular office.[3]

My imagination charges up when I consider the impact of the trial and death of Stephen on Saul of Tarsus.  With the outer garments of the raging men at his feet, Saul saw something he had never dreamed of in all his studies in the university at Tarsus, the tentmaking school of his boyhood, or in the exalted councils of his peers in Jerusalem.  Stephen’s testimony of Jesus was powerful but peaceful, uncompromising, and yet full of promise.  His courage somehow matched this peace even as the verdict was pronounced, and the authorities dragged Stephen into the city streets as these lesser men gathered their stones.

Saul witnessed these unprecedent events:

When they heard this, they were furious and gnashed their teeth at him. But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.  “Look,” he said, “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him, dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their clothes at the feet of a young man named Saul. While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then he fell on his knees and cried out, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he fell asleep. And Saul was there, giving approval to his death.[4]

In this public, riotous, political murder Saul of Tarsus saw these amazing things, things born not in the warfare and implements of the flesh, but in the ways of a higher Kingdom.

  • Truth not testimonies of lies,
  • Heavenly vision not earthly violence,
  • The peace of Heaven amidst the noise of hell,
  • Prayer as counterpoint to the pummeling stones, and
  • Rest in the midst of rage.

All of this irony must have shown in the face of Stephen, this first of a still-growing multitude of martyrs. Is it possible that Saul of Tarsus never forgot this scene? Is this the source of his amazing question when he was thrown down on the Damascus road by the presence of Jesus: “Who are you, Lord?”  Was He the Son of God as well as the Son of Man? Was He the Messiah? Was He just another wild-man rebel, another misguided lunatic in a quest for power? Were these memories the goads that stabbed the heart of Saul?

In a matter of three years, a season full of mystery with little detail given in scripture, Saul of Tarsus found out who Jesus was. His conversion, spirit-baptism, and wilderness-bound schooling in the New Covenant are not the province of this essay. It is enough to say that Saul of Tarsus became Paul the Apostle, the most eloquent of writers and teachers in the newly formed People of God, the ekklesia, “the called-out ones,” the church.[5]  He was fitly prepared to tell us how to overcome evil.  You see, we have been “called out” of the world into the Kingdom of God.  This is bigger than the human heart with all its random passions. It is wiser than councils of men and all their philosophies and schemes. God’s Kingdom was and is bigger than the Roman Empire or any government ever developed by power-hungry men. It has a different kind of defense department with more powerful weapons designed to defeat a devilish enemy.  It is time to revisit his wisdom. We consult with Paul in Romans 12.  Read Paul’s words today in the footnotes. [6]

This passage is filled with verbs so I will emphasize them:

  • Love people.
  • Abhor evil.
  • Cling to good.
  • Show honor.
  • Be zealous and fervent in spirit.
  • Serve the Lord.
  • Rejoice in hope.
  • Be patient in tribulation.
  • Pray!
  • Be hospitable and helpful to those in need.
  • Bless those who curse you.
  • Rejoice with others when things go well and weep with them when they don’t.
  • Be humble before all.
  • Do not repay evil with evil.
  • Live at peace with others if at all possible.
  • Do not avenge yourself when you are wronged.
  • Bless your enemies, and ultimately,
  • Overcome evil with good.

Where did Paul get such ideas?  From Jesus, of course. In many ways this is an elaboration on The Sermon on the Mount.  Since Paul wasn’t on that mountain, it is intriguing to think that he heard this directly from Jesus in his 3-years of instruction out in the desert.  This is our good conduct manual and in these wonderful, peaceful ways, we, too, overcome evil.

Semper Reformanda!
Stephen Phifer
© 2022 Stephen R. Phifer All Rights Reserved

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[1] 2 Cor 10:3-6 NKJV For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal but mighty in God for pulling down strongholds, casting down arguments and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ…

[2] — =Saul (q.v.) was born about the same time as our Lord. His circumcision-name was Saul, and probably the name Paul was also given to him in infancy “for use in the Gentile world,” as “Saul” would be his Hebrew home-name. He was a native of Tarsus, the capital of Cilicia, a Roman province in the south-east of Asia Minor. (Easton’s Bible Dictionary, PC Study Bible Copyright © 2003, 2006  Biblesoft, Inc. All rights reserved.)

[3] Smith’s Bible Dictionary, database Copyright © 2003, 2006 by Biblesoft, Inc. All rights reserved.)

[4] Acts 7:54-8:3 NKJV

[5] NT:1577 ekklesia … a calling out, i.e. (concretely) a popular meeting, especially a religious congregation (Jewish synagogue, or Christian community of members on earth or saints in heaven or both): KJV – assembly, church. (Strong’s Numbers and Concordance with Expanded Greek-Hebrew Dictionary. Copyright © 1994, 2003, 2006 Biblesoft, Inc. and International Bible Translators, Inc.)

[6] Romans 12:9-21 ESV Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor. Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty but associate with the lowly. Never be conceited. Repay no one evil for evil but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all.  If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 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.

How to Overcome Evil Part One


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