by Keith Sharp
via Truth Magazine XXIII: 34, pp. 554-556, August 31, 1979
"Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloak also. And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain. Give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away" (Matthew 5:38-42).
Perhaps no utterance of the Master has resulted in greater consternation and misunderstanding than this passage. A misapplication of this precept has resulted in both fanatical religious positions on the one hand and scoffing skepticism on the other. What is the meaning and application of this great moral commandment?
The Lord quoted the law of Moses directly in noting that law He was replacing (cf. Exodux 21:23-25; Leviticus 24:19,20; Deuteronomy 19:21). This is the oldest principle of simple justice known to man. It is known as the Lex Talionis, or the principle of "like for like." It is part of the earliest surviving code of laws, the Code of Hammurabi, ruler of Babylon from 2285 to 2242 B.C. (William Barclay, The Gospel of Matthew, I, 160).
Enemies of the Bible assail this law as brutal. Actually, far from being so, the purpose of this commandment was to prevent brutality. Human nature demands revenge for wrong suffered, for this is justice, but hatred and anger produce excessive revenge. One man knocks out another's tooth, so the other man kills the aggressor. We read of this thing in the newspaper every day. The law of "like for like" limits this revenge. The punishment must be equivalent to the injury received. Furthermore, this law acts as a safeguard against personal injury. If an assailant knew he would suffer in return the equivalent of the pain, injury or suffering he inflicted, he would not, in most cases, inflict the injury.
Civil government has as both its right and responsibility the administration of this justice (Romans 13:3,4). When it fails to do so, as in our nation today, crime is rampant (Ecclesiastes 8:11). The judge who fails to administer such justice neither fears God nor regards man (Luke 18:2-5).
Furthermore, Moses never intended this principle as a license for personal revenge, but as a guide to judicial equity. The Old Testament specifically forbids the taking of personal vengeance (Leviticus 19:18; Proverbs 20:22; 24:29; 25:21).
A final consideration which demonstrates the lack of brutality of the command was the fact that, in practice, except where murder was involved (Numbers 35:29-34), a money payment was accepted in place of actual maiming of the criminal.
However, the scribes and Pharisees had used this principle in much the same way most people use it today, to attempt to justify personal vengeance. Since the law of Christ clearly approves the essential and righteous role of civil government as an avenger (Romans 13:3,4), and since the Lord's precepts set against this statement of verse 38 pertain to personal vengeance, Christ must have directed His prohibitions against such "getting even," not against civil officers in upholding the laws of the state.
It being necessarily true that the Master's doctrine deals with personal vengeance, what does he teach about this subject? The principle Christ enunciates is "resist not evil." Is this a demand that Christians must passively submit to any and all sorts of physical violence? Must one watch a maniac kill his family and destroy his property, without lifting a finger to resist? Is this an injunction against Christians serving in the armed forces or on a police force?
Several years ago I heard brother Bryan Vinson, Sr. preach an outstanding lesson on the Christian and civil government, defending the right of a Christian to bear arms for his government. A young preacher foolishly jumped brother Vinson in the aisle before other members after services, contending the Lord demands total passivity on the part of Christians. Brother Vinson simply inquired of him, "If a vicious criminal broke into your house and attacked you wife, would you come to her help?" The young preacher's retort was, "Why, that's totally irrelevant!" His flabbergasted wife standing beside him quickly replied, "I don't think so!" Nor do I. If the passage demands complete passivity, thus eliminating service in the armed forces and police forces, it also eliminates forceful defense of one's own family and property. If not, why not?
I believe two key rules of Bible study will rescue us from this absurd position. Since the Scriptures are truth (John 17:17), and truth is always consistent with itself, it follows that the Scriptures are always harmonious one with another. No New Testament doctrine conflicts with any other. The Gospel instructs by apostolic approved example as well as by precept. There are clear apostolic examples that teach a Christian has the right to take all legal measures at his disposal to protect his rights against the onslaughts of evil-doers, even to the use of the armed power of the state. When the Romans in Jerusalem threatened to beat Paul without a trial, the great apostle insisted on his rights as a Roman citizen (Acts 22:22-29). When the radical Jews of that same city bound themselves under a curse to kill Paul, the beloved apostle made use of the armed power of the state, two hundred soldiers, seventy horsemen and two hundred spear men, to thwart their wicked scheme (Acts 23:12-24). When Festus would have sent Paul back to Jerusalem, where the Jews still waited to kill him, again the man of God demanded his citizenship rights and appealed to Caesar (Acts 25:9-12). In all of these instances, the apostle Paul in all innocence appealed to the armed power of civil government. If such use of armed might is evil, so is our calling on such for protection, for we must "have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness" (Ephesians 5:11).
Another basic rule of Bible study draws us to the same conclusion. Every statement must be taken in context. Jesus set a contrast between that which the Jews imagined the law of Moses allowed (v. 38) and that which the law of Christ demands (vv. 39-42). The scribes and Pharisees employed Moses' precepts concerning vengeance to attempt to justify personally getting even with an adversary. "Resist not evil" is an absolute prohibition against personal vengeance or even an attitude of resentment as the result of wrong suffered.
When a Christian suffers wrong, he should not "vow to get even" or seethe in resentment. He should do good to the evil-doer and leave vengeance to the Lord (Romans 12:17-21). God has at least three means of accomplishing this vengeance. He has authorized the punitive power of civil government, which involves the police officer (Rom. 13:3,4). Christ Himself, as God in ancient days, still "ruleth in the kingdom of men, and giveth it to whomsoever he will" (Daniel 4:17; Revelation 19:15), and this involves the use of armed forces. God will reap final and complete vengeance in the last judgment of all men (Revelation 20:11-15).
The Master stated four examples to illustrate this principle. Each teaches that we should not seek personal vengeance. Jesus commanded:
"but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also."
In all ages, a "slap on the face" has been regarded as the grossest of insults, but it does not imperil one's life (cf. I Kings. 22:24; Lamentations 3:30; John 19:3; II Corinthians 11:20). Thus, the illustration is simple but demanding. When wicked people heap upon us the lowest and meanest insults, we must not retaliate in kind. Any loyal Christian has been called all sorts of demeaning names, has endured ostracism and has been the object of vicious lies. One must never angrily turn on such an attacker as a dog on its tormentor. When Jesus was so stricken, he rebuked the offender, but refused to retaliate, although all the forces of heaven were at his behest (John 18:22,23). He is our perfect example of enduring suffering without retaliation (I Peter 2:18-24).
The Lord demanded:
"And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloak also."
The "coat," opposite to current usage of the term, denoted "the inner vest or under garment" (W.E. Vine, An Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, I, 198). Even the poorest of Jews would usually have a change of such "coats" (Barclay', Ibid). But the"cloak" was "an outer garment, a mantle" (Vine, Ibid) and consisted of "a large square piece of cloth, provided with tassels" which "was thrown over the left shoulder and brought over under the right arm" (Davis Dictionary of the Bible, p. 148). The Jew would usually possess only one such garment and used it both as a robe by day and a blanket by night (Barclay, Ibid). The law forbade taking this cloak as a pledge.
This is a case of judicial injustice. It does not forbid the Christian's use of the court in self defense, as the apostle Paul so employed it. It does teach that, even should one use the courts to persecute us, we should not seek vengeance. Be rather willing to lose that which by right cannot be taken from you than to seek personal vengeance (cf. I Corinthians 6:7). The Master enjoined:
"And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain."
"Compel" means "to impress into service" (Vine, I, f. 219) and was applied to the forced transport of military baggage by the inhabitants of a country through which troops were passing. The sense of oppression is involved, subjection to arbitrary military power (Expositors Greek Testament).
"Palestine was an occupied country. At any moment a Jew might feel the touch of the flat of a Roman spear on his shoulder, and know that he was compelled to serve the Romans, it might be in the most menial way" (Barclay, lbid).
This is a case of government oppression, subjection to
arbitrary military power. The application to us, in a land of
freedom where the government is constitutionally limited, would be
in the area of distasteful legislation, e.g., speed laws and taxes.
The Roman yoke, starkly obvious when one was compelled to carry out
belittling tasks, was especially galling to the proud Jews, who
hated their masters and yearned for freedom. How exceedingly
unsavory must Simon of Cyrene's work have seemed, when he was"compelled to bear" the cross of Jesus after the Lord (Matthew 27:32;
Mark 15:21; Luke 23:26). How easy it would be to allow an attitude of
bitter resentment to spring up and to seek revenge, as the Zealots
did. How tempting it would be to see just how little one could get
by with in serving such a master. But the Christian is to submit to
arbitrary, even tyrannical power, with cheerfulness. Rather than
seeing how little we can cooperate and still get by, we should exceed the demands (I Peter 2:18-20).
"Give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away."
Did the Master teach an unlimited benevolence with our material
goods? If so, we would soon be impoverished, and our families would
be begging. People who insist that, when Christ demanded, "resist
not evil," the statement is completely unqualified, quickly point
out that the context limits the statement we are now noticing and
that other passages qualify it. If this be so for one, why not for
The Lord himself promised, "If ye shall ask anything in my name, I will do it" (John 14:14). Yet, he refused to grant Paul's request (II Corinthians 11:8,9) and informed others their prayers were not heard because they asked through improper motives (James 4:3). Even so here, Jesus teaches an attitude toward giving which is limited and qualified by the context and by other passages.
We must give to the needy cheerfully, not resentfully. We should not ask remuneration for charitable gifts (Luke 6:30). This attitude and action was demanded by the Old Covenant (Deuteronomy 15:7-11), is elsewhere taught in the New Testament (cf. Acts 20:35; I John 3:17, 18) and was often exemplified by first century Christians (cf. Acts 4:32-37).
Other passages do qualify the command. In our giving, we must not neglect the needs of our own family (I Timothy 5:8); we must put spiritual matters first (Acts 6:1-4); we are not to encourage the indolent (II Thessalonians 3:10-12); we should not use material assistance as an attraction to unbelievers (John 6:26, 27), and we must not give beyond our ability to do so honestly (Acts 5:1-11). But these limitations do not negate the fact that, as disciples of Christ, we must give willingly and without resentment to the worthy poor.
Our Lord does not demand that we be passive in the face of onslaught and danger. He does allow us to protect our lives, our family and our property. He does not forbid us to serve in the military or police forces. But Christ does command us not to seek personal vengeance for wrongs suffered. We must be willing to bear the grossest insults, the greatest legal injustice, the most arbitrary power and the needs of the poor with neither resentment nor personal vengeance. The standard is high and difficult, but if we would be partakers of the righteousness of His kingdom, we must strive to follow it.