What do you do when you’re mistreated and/or insulted? What is the proper way to react as a Christian in such situations? The words of Jesus, in his famous Sermon on the Mount, shed some important light on this issue.
Matthew 5:38–39 – You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ 39 But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.
Jesus starts out his teaching by quoting an Old Testament law from Leviticus 24:20 (‘eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’). It’s important to understand that the context of this law was Israel’s civil justice system. Here’s the law as recorded in its original context of Leviticus 24:18–20 – “Anyone who takes the life of someone’s animal must make restitution–life for life. 19 If anyone injures his neighbor, whatever he has done must be done to him: 20 fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth. As he has injured the other, so he is to be injured.”
This law was God’s way of saying that the punishment should fit the crime. There is no evidence in the Bible that this was applied literally. But, in Exodus 21:19, we read an example of how this might play out in real life. If you got into an argument with someone and it led to a fist fight, and you punched the other guy and injured him, you were to be held responsible by paying a fine to the victim compensating him for the time that his injury would keep him from working. So, in that sense the punishment would fit the crime. Since the application of this law was Israel’s civil justice system, a trial and sentencing were always the responsibility of duly appointed judges or a representative body of citizens (see Lev.24:14–16). It wasn’t up to the victim to orchestrate justice himself from start to finish!
God’s law ‘eye for eye and tooth for tooth’ was actually a merciful law, contrary to what some think, because it was God’s way of limiting the innate sinful propensity of the human heart to seek retribution beyond what an offense deserved. In no instance did the Old Testament ever allow an individual to take the law into his own hands and apply it personally. Yet, that’s exactly how the Pharisees and teachers of the law in Jesus’ day had applied it. They had turned God’s law into a convenient license for personal vengeance. In their twisted thinking, they thought, “You hurt me, I can hurt you back. You break my hand, I’ll break your hand back!” But this law was never meant to be used as a ticket to getting personal revenge. For this reason, Jesus goes on to say in v.39, “But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.”
What did Jesus mean by turning the other cheek?
If you wanted to make a Jewish man angry (in the first century), you could do one of two things. You could either spit in his face or slap his cheek. With that in mind Jesus says, “If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” In other words, when your dignity is insulted, Jesus is saying NOT to get even. When someone insults you with a rude word, or spreads lies about you, don’t speak an insult back. When someone mistreats you, don’t retaliate. When someone gossips about you do not seek revenge. The command of our Lord to turn the other cheek isn’t a literal command to turn the other cheek if someone slaps your face. Rather, it’s simply a way of telling us not to seek revenge.
Now, when Jesus says, “Do not resist an evil person” there are a four things to keep in mind.
1. When Jesus said, “Do not resist an evil person” he didn’t mean that Christians are to be doormats. I don’t think our Lord was saying that we cannot defend ourselves and protect ourselves or our loved ones if attacked. Remember that Jesus said he didn’t come to abolish the law, and part of the Old Testament Law taught that a person had the right to protect their loved ones if threatened and attacked. For example, Exodus 22:2 said that if a thief broke into your home in the middle of the night and you defended yourself and your loved ones and struck them down, you weren’t to be guilty of bloodshed.
2. When Jesus said, “Do not resist an evil person” he didn’t mean that we shouldn’t take a stand against evil in the world. Jesus himself took a stand against evil when he drove out the greedy moneychangers who had taken over the temple of his day (John 2:13-17). He believed their actions to be so selfish and sinful that it merited him kicking them out of the temple.
3. When Jesus said, “Do not resist an evil person” he didn’t mean that we shouldn’t take a stand against sinful behavior in the church family. After all, when there was immorality in the Corinthian church, and the people involved weren’t sorrowful or repentant, Paul’s command for the church was, “Expel the wicked man from among you” (1 Corinthians 5:13).
4. When Jesus said, “Do not resist an evil person” he didn’t mean that governments shouldn’t oppose evildoers. They should. God has ordained that the government (through civil authorities) punish evildoers. See Romans 13:1-5.
So, getting back to the main text in Matthew 5, when Jesus says in v.39, “Do not resist an evil person,” he isn’t saying that we can’t defend ourselves or our loved ones. He isn’t saying that we shouldn’t take a stand against evil in the world or in the church, or that the government shouldn’t use force to combat evildoers. When Jesus says, “Do not resist an evil person,” he is really saying that if you are harmed by an evil act, it is not acceptable to pay that person back with harm. Instead, forgive them and entrust them to the Lord for God to deal with them. As it says in Ephesians 4:32 – “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.”