Editor’s note: The purpose of this series is to walk our readers through the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7 in order to help them understand what it teaches and how to apply it to our lives. This is our first such series here at Servants of Grace through an extended biblical passage and is part of our larger commitment to help Christians learn to read, interpret, reflect, and apply the Bible to their own lives.

SermonOnTheMountThere are few commands in the Bible that clash more with our natural inclination to protect our person and our honor than the commands found in Matthew 5:38–42:

You have heard that it was said, “Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.” But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.

Turn the other cheek? We would rather clench our fist. This teaching is so hard to accept that an old Scottish preacher once expounded it this way: “Jesus said, ‘If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.’ But the third lick, the third lick I say, belongs to you!”

The old preacher explained our text away. Our goal is to explain what Jesus really meant. It does require explanation, as Jesus’ teachings often do. The challenge is to hear His message and to determine when He does and when He does not want literal obedience.

Remember, Jesus also said, “If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away” (Matt. 5:29). But Jesus did not expect literal obedience there, as if He wanted to see battalions of one-eyed Christians. Jesus was using hyperbole; He often used hyperbole to get our attention, to make a point. It is our task to discover His true intent. We must neither take a false burden on ourselves by interpreting Jesus in a hyperliteral way, nor explain away the rigorous demands of discipleship.

An Eye for an Eye

When Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you …,” He seems to be criticizing the law of Moses, where the rule of “an eye for an eye” is found three times in Israel’s penal code (Ex. 21:23–25; Lev. 24:19–20; Deut. 19:21). To modern Western observers, this rule, known as the lex talionis, seems cruel and vindictive. It conjures up images of gruesome maiming and grim executioners.

However, the lex talionis did two things. First, it gave judges a clear and just formula for punishment. Second, it forbade vendettas and excessive retribution. It restrained men like Lamech, who boasted, “I have killed a man for wounding me” (Gen. 4:23). It reined in the vindictiveness of the proud man who exacted whatever vengeance he could get. “An eye for an eye” sounds harsh, but originally it restrained anger. It forbade the vengeful mind that thinks, “If you knock out my tooth, I will knock out six of yours.” It stopped the spiral of violence. It said, “One tooth for one tooth—and no more.”

In Israel’s penal code, “an eye for an eye” is a fundamental principle. It teaches that punishment must be proportional to the crime and suited to it. It governs property violations (Ex. 22:4–6), personal injury (Lev. 24:19–20), and manslaughter (Lev. 24:17, 21). For example, if a man steals his neighbor’s ox or sheep, he must pay back two oxen or sheep, restoring the one he stole and adding one of his own. Thus, the thief loses precisely what his neighbor would have lost. Again, in the case of perjury, a convicted perjurer must suffer the same punishment that his lie would have inflicted on his victim (Deut. 19:16–21).

There is great wisdom in the principle of an eye for an eye. It is part of God’s Law, and neither Jesus nor any apostle says that the principle is wrong. Jesus affirms it when He says, “Whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 10:33 ESV; cf. Mark 8:38). Paul affirms it too: “If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him” (1 Cor. 3:17).

In itself, “an eye for an eye” ensures that criminals are treated justly and are protected from malice and vengefulness. Thus, theft is punished by restitution, not by maiming or incarceration. The law protects society, too, for just laws deter crime. Just laws purge evil from the land and instill fear of the Lord (Deut. 19:20–21).

In these ways, especially in the public sphere, the lex talionis is holy, righteous, and good (Rom. 7:12). Yet, as Jesus, Paul, and the prophets knew, we tend to distort the law. We twist it to our advantage or evade it, so we can do as we please. In public, the lex talionis is necessary justice. But in private, it can cover a vindictive spirit. Society needs justice, but we do not need to exact justice with our own hand. As individuals, we can entrust justice to God and the state, and act in mercy.

In the Law of Moses, public leaders enforced “an eye for an eye” in the land of Israel. But the church has no territory or public magistrates. Jesus addresses that borderless nation, the church, in its private life. He forbids us the cold pleasures of a vengeful spirit. In isolation, “an eye for an eye” might seem to tolerate the thought, “I’ll give him back everything he gave, just as the law says.” But Jesus forbids it. Indeed, He requires the opposite attitude, as we shall see.

Do Not Resist an Evil Person

Follow the flow of Jesus’ thought for a moment. Slightly paraphrased, He says:

  • The law says, “Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.”
  • But I say, “Do not resist an evil man.”

Clearly, “Do not resist” is a general principle, not an absolute requirement, for elsewhere the Bible teaches that we should resist some things. For example, James and Peter both command Christians to “resist the devil” (James 4:7; 1 Peter 5:9). Paul declares that he “opposed [Peter] to his face” when he compromised his Christian principles (Gal. 2:11). Paul also resisted Elymas when he interfered with Paul’s gospel proclamation (Acts 13:8–12). So there are times to resist evil on a spiritual level.

The Bible also shows that we must sometimes resist evil with physical effort. David showed that he was God’s anointed king when he resisted armies that invaded Israel ( 2 Sam. 5:6–25). The Lord also told Joshua that no one would be able to resist him in battles for the land of Canaan (Josh. 1:5). Later, it was a sign of Israel’s shame and disobedience that they could not resist invasions from the nations around them (Judg. 2:11–15). Israel always tried to defend itself from attack and often succeeded, with God’s help. In short, the Bible does not teach pacifism or that the sword is intrinsically evil. As Paul says in Romans 13:1-4: “The authorities that exist have been established by God.… For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong.… He is God’s servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.”

We may not harbor hatred for our enemies. When a lesser power or a terrorist attacks a greater nation, the greater nation is filled with cries for vengeance: “Bomb them back into the Stone Age. There is only one thing a terrorist understands—brute force.” A case can indeed be made that terrorists do not understand anything but force. But thwarting terrorism is one thing, bloodlust is another.

So then, disciples must resist spiritual evil and they may even resist some physical attacks. What then does Jesus mean when He says, “Do not resist. Turn the other cheek”? Let Jesus’ deeds interpret His words, above all at His trial. When the high priest interrogated Jesus, He did not resist. When charged with threatening to destroy the temple, Matthew says, “Jesus remained silent” (Matthew 26:63). When Pilate questioned Him, He gave no answer. He did not defend Himself (John 19:9–11). At the trial, the servants of the high priest “spit in his face and struck him with their fists. Others slapped him” (Matt. 26:67). Pilate’s men did the same. “They spit on him … and struck him on the head again and again” (Matt. 27:30). Mark says, “Then some began to spit at him; they blindfolded him, struck him with their fists, and said, ‘Prophesy!’ And the guards took him and beat him” (Mark 14:65).

Isaiah. 50:6–8 says, “The prophet Isaiah foretold this.

I offered my back to those who beat me,

my cheeks to those who pulled out my beard;

I did not hide my face

from mocking and spitting.

Because the Sovereign Lord helps me,

I will not be disgraced.…

… I know I will not be put to shame.

He who vindicates me is near.”

Peter tells us that Jesus’ action was an example for us: “When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly” (1 Peter 2:23). Jesus said, “No servant is greater than his master” (John 13:16). Since Jesus waited for the Father to vindicate Him, then we can be still and wait for the Lord to vindicate us.

Turn the Other Cheek

To understand Jesus correctly, we need to visualize the blow that Jesus describes. It is a blow to the right cheek. If a right-handed person strikes a blow (and most men are right-handed), his right hand strikes his foe’s left cheek. A right-handed person strikes the right cheek with the back of the hand. The back-handed blow is an insult, an affront to honor.

Jesus wants us to endure a first insulting blow, and then a second, for His sake. This especially applies to the insults that a disciple bears for his faith in Christ (Matt. 5:11). In Jesus’ day and throughout the ages, disciples have suffered insults for their faith. But we do not fight back to protect our honor.

Notice that Jesus does not say why a disciple must turn the other cheek. He does not say that it brings glory to God, or convicts evildoers, or instills repentance and faith. He does not say that the violent man will repent or feel remorse. It is simply the Lord’s way. His life is our model, just as His words are our guide.

If Someone Sues You

Once again, we need to understand the culture in order to follow Jesus. Rightly or wrongly, someone is suing a disciple for a debt. The adversary seeks compensation by taking the disciple’s clothing. Clothing was valuable and expensive in antiquity. Ordinary people had only shoes and one or two changes of clothing. People normally wore an inner garment, called a tunic, and an outer garment, called a robe or a cloak. The law permitted the seizure of a tunic, but not a robe. It was a man’s covering, his blanket at night, and no one could take it from him (Ex. 22:26–27; Deut. 24:12–13).

Jesus says that if someone attempts to take our tunic, which may be his prerogative, give him the robe, though it is never his prerogative. Again, we must recognize the hyperbole. Jesus is not commanding us to give away everything until we are left cold and naked. He is commanding us not to devote ourselves to defending our honor and avenging all affronts.

He chooses the lawsuit to illustrate the point because it is so offensive to be taken to court. False accusations are much the same. If you want to make someone angry, accuse him of something he did not do. Children get angry when parents blame them for something their sibling did. Supervisors get angry if someone beneath them accuses them falsely. The critic is wrong, and who is he to criticize anyway? Watch yourself, too, when a family member accuses you unjustly. Imagine this scene:

Wife: Why did you eat my banana? I told everyone not to eat the last banana. I needed it for lunch.

Husband: I ate the last banana, but you didn’t tell me not to eat it.

Wife: I certainly did. Just ten minutes ago, I called out, “Nobody take the last banana. That banana is my lunch for tomorrow.”

Husband: Ten minutes ago I was in the shower. How am I supposed to hear you talking about your banana when I’m in the shower? If you would think before you talk once in a while, you wouldn’t accuse me of such nonsense.…

Even at home, we are so quick to defend our honor, so quick to retaliate, at least verbally. The last remark, “If you would think once in a while,” is pure retaliation. Jesus says, in effect, “Stop fighting for honor. Turn the other cheek. Let others defraud you; let God defend you.”

That is easier said than done, because it defies human nature. But it is consistent with a believing heart, a heart that trusts God for vindication. A man who has been humbled by his sin, a man who knows he is guilty and redeemed by grace alone, will not protest too much at a false charge. We are like criminals who are guilty of one hundred crimes, but who, oddly enough, are not guilty of the charges at hand. Still, even if we did not commit the act in question, we did something else just like it. In a rough way, we merit the charges.

Some say a man must defend his honor. They will endure many things, but will not remain silent when someone assaults their integrity. For a public figure, that may be true, for a leader must be trusted. As Proverbs says, “A good name is more desirable than riches” (Proverbs 22:1). But we may not fight over every wound to our pride.

Go the Second Mile

The final two examples add to the ban on retaliation. Jesus requires us to show kindness to those who insult us. The first illustration is particularly galling, and obedience is especially hard. Roman law let soldiers commandeer local citizens in an occupied land and make them carry their equipment for a thousand paces.

What an affront: to be forced to help a foreign oppressor carry the tools he uses to oppress you! At one level, this is Jesus’ answer to the Zealots, a group of Jews who were committed to the violent overthrow of Roman power. Jesus implicitly opposed armed revolution, here and elsewhere (Luke 19:41–44). At a pragmatic level, it was sound advice, because in those days the Romans were invincible and implacable. The Stoic philosopher Epictetus (ca. a.d. 50–120) advised that if a soldier commandeers a man’s donkey, “let it go, do not resist nor grumble. If you do, you will get a beating and lose your little donkey just the same.”

The reasoning of Epictetus is strictly pragmatic. Resistance, he says, is futile. But Jesus has something more in mind. After the Romans forcibly extract a kilometer of service, Jesus says, freely give them another.

Jesus provides no rationale—at the moment. But it is not hard to find. Jesus turned the other cheek to those who struck Him and served those who mistreated Him. Above all, Jesus died for sinners, even for the Roman soldiers who executed Him, if they would repent and believe. Recall Jesus’ prayer for His executioners, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34 ESV).

The logic becomes explicit a few verses later, when Jesus says, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven” (Matt. 5:44–45). Disciples are generous because our God is generous and we conform ourselves to Him.

Give to the One Who Asks

The last illustration confirms that Jesus is, above all, stressing the need for a generous heart. Of course, endless requests for help can stir up anger, as lawsuits and forced service do. Still, the topic of nonretaliation is fading as Jesus commends generosity in lending.

When we read, “Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you” (Matthew 5:42), we wonder, “Is there a limit?” There is. Jesus does not want us to walk home from court unclad, nor to give away money we need to feed our families. There is no love in giving so much that we foster dependency. We do not love a man by teaching him to abuse our generosity.

Still, we should give generously. The Law of Moses commanded Israelites to lend generously (Deut. 15:7–11; cf. Ps. 37:26; Prov. 28:27), without interest, to their needy brothers (Ex. 22:25–27; Lev. 25:35–38; Deut. 23:19–20). When a brother is in need, God said, be generous, for he was generous when his people were in need in Egypt. God is compassionate (Ex. 22:27); therefore, we must be compassionate. God liberated Israel from slavery; therefore, we must liberate brothers from their poverty (Deut. 15:14–15).

Most churches are fair, at best, at giving to the one who asks. We gladly help Christian friends in need. If a friend has a baby or surgery, most of us are quick to help with a meal or a visit. But we are less adept at helping a fellow Christian whom we do not know, including the needy who cannot directly ask us for help. We give money to needy Christians abroad, but compassion to people in our own communities can be quite weak if we have no connection to them.

Some churches have compassionate individuals, but do not grasp the value of group action. Most evangelical churches have a very limited ministry of mercy to the poor and needy in their own area. Tim Keller suggests three reasons for this:

  1. We let individual ministries—personal care and growth and discipleship—overshadow social dimensions of the gospel.
  2. We have not developed bridges to the needy members of our community. If we started a clothing pantry, we would have a hard time finding the people who need clothes. We do not have many connections to the poor, even though there are poor people within a few miles of almost every church.
  3. We have done little to encourage the friends of mercy. We fail to present a vision of ministry to the poor. Many churches are ripe for change if the right people receive encouragement and direction.

Jesus said, “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field” (Matt. 9:37–38). Many churches could begin to approach the poor by praying before they propose a program. If we develop an eye and a heart for the needy, the programs may spring up almost spontaneously.

The Greeks said that it is impossible to be happy if one must serve. But Jesus said, “I am among you as one who serves” (Luke 22:27). He gave both to His friends (His disciples) and to strangers, such as us. James says that kindness to the needy is proof that our faith is genuine (James 2:14–17). So let us pray that God would open eyes and hearts to the needy, even those who cannot ask for help.

Conclusion

When Jesus says, “Turn the other cheek,” He commends a way of life that runs contrary to human nature. The news accounts of strife between antagonistic nations are drearily similar. One side fires a gun or sets off some explosive device. It strikes a combatant who also a child or a spouse. So the other side, filled with outrage, shoots and bombs back, killing more combatants and civilians. Soon, the cycle of violence is spiraling upward again.

The desire to strike back in order to defend our honor or our loved ones is understandable. It is natural to desire to see justice done, to see evil punished, to see marauders and terrorists stopped. But we must rein in the impulse to get even, especially at a personal level. We must eschew self-defense in order to break the cycle of violence.

The values of a disciple are the values of his Lord. The values of the Kingdom are the values of the King. We look to Christ. We turn the other cheek because He turned the other cheek. We give generously to all because He gives generously to all. We go the extra mile because He went the extra mile, even with us. For when we (and not just the Romans) were His enemies, He won us with His love. Jesus does not prohibit the administration of justice; He will overthrow Satan himself one day and punish him! But, as God’s children, we share in His supreme righteousness when we stop standing on our rights, when we forgo revenge, and do good to all. We are strong, for Jesus is strong, but we also give, for Jesus gives.