Truth Taught- Christ’s followers must never resort to revenge but trust God in all things.
The section we come to today is, as many have called it, the highest point of Christian counter culture. If you remember from the Beatitudes that they are Jesus’ teaching on how His followers are to be different from the world around us. Here is the pinnacle of this idea.
Before we launch into Jesus’ words of instruction we should set the stage and have the context in mind in order to better understand what our Lord desires from His people.
Exodus 20 contains the Ten Commandments, which were the foundation for the Nation of Israel. These were given to her at the very beginning of her formation as a nation. The subsequent chapters in Exodus teach how these commandments are to be applied in the life of Israel. It is from this section Jesus quotes today.
Exodus 21:22–25 (ESV)
22 “When men strive together and hit a pregnant woman, so that her children come out, but there is no harm, the one who hit her shall surely be fined, as the woman’s husband shall impose on him, and he shall pay as the judges determine. 23 But if there is harm, then you shall pay life for life, 24 eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, 25 burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.
In this case the context is very important because it is the context that the Pharisees had manipulated to arrive at an interpretation that fit their agenda. To read Exodus 21 shows us that the civil authorities of Israel enacted this punishment. The judges were to enact just judgment and see that it was carried out swiftly. This was not to be personal revenge on the perpetrator but civil punishment on the wrong doer.
Deuteronomy 19:16–21 (ESV)
16 If a malicious witness arises to accuse a person of wrongdoing, 17 then both parties to the dispute shall appear before the Lord, before the priests and the judges who are in office in those days. 18 The judges shall inquire diligently, and if the witness is a false witness and has accused his brother falsely, 19 then you shall do to him as he had meant to do to his brother. So you shall purge the evil from your midst. 20 And the rest shall hear and fear, and shall never again commit any such evil among you. 21 Your eye shall not pity. It shall be life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.
Here again we see and understand this principle of exact retribution was to be carried out by the civil authorities in Israel not carried out as revenge by individuals.
We are living in a day where in many of our major cities rioting is the norm. People are taking matters into their own hands seeking revenge for the death of George Floyd. Now, as Americans we stand in support of peaceful protests and demonstrations. However, what is going on now is none of the above. It is the picture of what happens when a society has jettisoned law and order and thinks that individual revenge is appropriate. It was a horrible thing that took place, namely the killing of a handcuffed prisoner by the police. However, this needs to be handled by the courts. The policeman, as an American, still deserves a fair trial and just punishment. What this has digressed into is nothing more than groups and gangs seizing the opportunity to destroy property and in a few cases even commit murder themselves.
So, let’s be clear as to what the Old Testament taught and I think we’ll discover Jesus is teaching the same thing. The Christian is never encouraged by God to seek out revenge and retribution himself. God does not endorse getting even on a personal level. It is sinful to retaliate and seek revenge. At the same time God does endorse, and in fact has set in place, civil authorities and has given them authority to seek justice and retribution.
Jesus is not teaching that a Christian cannot defend himself in self-defense. You should defend yourself if you find yourself threatened or in some sort of danger. There is a big difference between self-defense and revenge.
Jesus is not teaching that Christians cannot or should not fight in a just war. He is speaking of revenge and retribution on a personal level.
Now with this context in mind let’s pray and then look at what our Lord teaches us as His people.
Father this is Your Word that has gone out from Your mouth. Would You cause it to accomplish in us what You have intended? Do not let Your Word return to You void but accomplish all Your purposes today among Your people.
Matthew 5:38–42 (ESV)
38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39 But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. 40 And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. 41 And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. 42 Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.
1. The Impartial Judicial Response
38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’
Jesus is not putting Himself and His teaching against the Law of God but is explaining it to His hearers and to us. What God calls for in His Law and what He still calls for is a justice system that is blind to all prejudices. One’s skin color or station in life should have no impact on a fair speedy trial and a just judgment. The Old Testament command is one that states the punishment should fit the crime. A judge should not prescribe the death penalty for running a stop sign nor should he fine the murderer $20 and then release him. The Old Testament prescribes a punishment that is equal to the crime committed.
Leviticus 24:19–21 (ESV)
19 If anyone injures his neighbor, as he has done it shall be done to him, 20 fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; whatever injury he has given a person shall be given to him. 21 Whoever kills an animal shall make it good, and whoever kills a person shall be put to death.
The New Testament teaches the same fair and just punishment by the civil authorities.
Galatians 6:7 (ESV)
7 Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap.
Matthew 7:1–2 (ESV)
7 “Judge not, that you be not judged. 2 For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you.
This universal God-ordained form of punishment goes against our modern day idea of reforming the criminal. In the case of crime and punishment God was not interested in reform of the criminal but in preserving law and order for everyone. One scholar writes this, Magistrates were never ordained by God for the purpose of reforming reprobates or pampering degenerates, but to be His instruments for preserving law and order in a sinful society.
Why has our society so drifted away from God’s Word and intent? Our world today seems to be more concerned with the criminal than his victim. God desires justice to be fair and speedy as a deterrent for others committing similar crimes. However, when there is no real accountability and the degenerates are pampered then crime will be everywhere like we see today.
Romans 13:2–4 (ESV)
2 Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. 3 For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, 4 for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.
I think it is a good time to look at how God carried out exactly what He prescribed when He saved us. In His great and amazing kindness, grace and mercy God poured His wrath out on His Son, judging that our multitude of sins warranted a just death penalty. Our sin against the Eternal God not only warranted a just and right death penalty but an eternal death penalty.
While on a human level just judgment is an eye for an eye but on an eternal level…
Romans 6:23 (ESV)
23 For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Some believe God is more loving in the New Testament than the Old Testament. However, the New Testament does not eliminate justice. It says we will all face judgment after death (Hebrews 9:27) and the penalty for sin is death (Romans 3:23, 6:23). Let us distinguish two kinds of death, however. The first kind of death signifies the physical separation from our body (Hebrews 9:27). The New Testament speaks a second kind of death, which is spiritual separation from God because of our sin (see Isaiah 59:2). Without salvation, that spiritual separation eventually results in eternal punishment in the lake that burns with fire and brimstone, i.e., hell (Revelation 21:8). Hell is the destiny for the unrepentant after judgment.
So on the one hand there is fair and just punishment with God and on the other hand there is God’s amazing grace. Beloved, we should be very cautious when asking God for just punishment concerning others because if we knew the truth, we are right there too.
There is a vast difference between God and man. With God there is also mercy but not so with man. Notice God’s grace in the Old Testament with the first murder…
Cain, you’ll remember, had killed his brother Abel out of a spirit of jealousy. But God had instituted the command that “whoever kills Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold” (Gen. 4:15). That was an act of unmerited mercy on God’s part. It kept anyone from taking vengeance on Cain. But it didn’t take long before Cain’s very vengeful descendent, Lamech, distorted God’s command and twisted it to justify his own sinful lust for revenge on a personal level. He once spoke to his wives and said; “Adah and Zillah, hear my voice; wives of Lamech, listen to my speech! For I have killed a man for wounding me, even a young man for hurting me” (v. 23). We don’t know the details of this murderous act. All we know is that a young man somehow wounded or injured Lamech; and that Lamech responded by murdering him for it. And then, he speaks in a way that characterizes that sinful lust for revenge that is so often found in us all – “If Cain shall be avenged sevenfold, then Lamech seventy-sevenfold” (v. 24).
We are shown a very stark contrast between God and sinful man.
With God there is both justice and mercy. Nothing pictures this as well as the cross.
We have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23). Our sin is a crime against God. It is cosmic treason asserting that God’s authority really belongs to us. Our sin incurs a debt. We owe God something for disobeying His Law. This debt is an eternal debt we could never in a thousand lifetimes repay. Moreover, our sin destroys the relationship between man and God. There is enmity between the Creator and His creation.
God would be perfectly just to leave us in our sin and punish us eternally in hell. But God is gracious, desiring out of His great love and mercy to save some. So, in order to show mercy to us without compromising His justice, the Father sent His Son so that in Him our crime would be punished, our debt paid, and our relationship restored. At the cross, God satisfied His justice and demonstrated His mercy.
While the eye for an eye retribution is very appropriate on a judicial level it is not appropriate on an individual level.
2. The Impartial Christian Response
39 But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. 40 And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. 41 And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. 42 Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.
The Pharisees were teaching that they could enact the eye for an eye punishment themselves on personal matters. They were acting like the Jerusalem Mafia. They retaliated and sought revenge themselves rather than leaving it to the governing authorities. Jesus wants us to be different.
When we are sinned against we do not have God’s approval to get even. We cannot take revenge. Because someone hurt us we cannot hurt them back or like Lamech murder them. Jesus commands us to be counter cultural. To show kindness to an enemy often takes more inner strength than to get even.
What is Jesus telling us? He’s saying that it’s far more glorifying to God to give up your rights than to seek revenge. Beloved, making sure you get your rights is not what God desires from His people. You are never more like Jesus than when you choose to submit to God rather than declaring and demanding your rights. That’s the point. Jesus gives us four examples.
To give your cheek, your cloak, and your service is far more Christ like than to seek personal retaliation.
But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. This verse in historical context had more to do with honor and dishonor than someone attacking you. To strike someone on the cheek in anger was a way for them to say I’m better than you and you are nobody. Jesus says give up your rights when pride is concerned.
He speaks of our right to personal respect. He says, “But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also” (v. 39). The reason I say that this concerns the right to be respected is because, in the Bible times, it was a great insult and a very demeaning thing to be slapped. Jesus, you remember, was slapped in this way when He stood before the High Priest (John 18:22-23). Paul also was struck in this way when he stood before the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem (Acts 23:3). And Jesus is very specific in His description. To be struck on the right cheek – assuming that the one striking was using his right hand – would require that the back of the hand be used. This would be a particularly demeaning and insulting thing.
40 And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well.
Second, He speaks of our right to personal justice.
In the Bible, a man’s outer garment was to be considered so basic a thing that a man wasn’t allowed to go without it. In Exodus 22:26-27, God says, “If you ever take your neighbor’s garment as a pledge, you shall return it to him before the sun goes down. For that is his only covering, it is his garment for his skin. What will he sleep in? And it will be that when he cries to Me, I will hear, for I am gracious.” I would suggest to you that, if you are sued for your inner garment, you are being sued for all that you have and are being brought to a state of destitution. To be sued for one’s inner garment, and to then throw in the outer garment as well, is tantamount to giving up the most basic demands of justice.
41 And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.
Third, He speaks of our right to personal liberty
This is speaking of how the soldiers of an occupied land may exercise the right to recruit a citizen of that occupied land to carry their stuff for them. Simon of Cyrene was something of an example of this, when he was forced by soldiers to carry the Savior’s cross (Mark 15:21). The law required that such a person only be forced by a soldier to carry such a burden for one mile.
Finally, Jesus speaks of our right to personal property.
42 Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.
What we have is not our own anyway. If someone asks for help give it to them.
These examples are radical and exactly what God wants. All of them are difficult and all are to be practiced.
If someone insults you don’t insult them back but answer with kindness. If someone is in need be a giver. These are the application points for what Jesus teaches us here.
I know how difficult these all are. Our response far too often rather than saying yes Lord and seeking His help is yeah but what if…
Let’s look briefly at our Lord’s teaching on the big picture scale. Because His teaching is that His followers must live differently than the world and not be concerned with our rights but with what God commands.
What right is it that you fight for to the point it may become an obsession and over shadows God’s will for you to be Christ like?
I deserve ________________. Do you fight for the last word to prove you should be reckoned with? Do you argue until you either win or at least make the other person suffer for even challenging you? When you eat out do you demand the meal to be cooked exactly to your specifications or the waitress and cook will be called to hear your mind?
What would happen if instead of demanding all your rights that you answered the other person with love and kindness and went the extra mile to serve them even if they were your enemy?
Matthew 5:43–45 (ESV)
43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.
Is there someone you have responded in a retaliatory way that God would have you go to and show them kindness?
Jesus’ words force us to recognize what it means to take up our cross and follow Him. He said, “. . . He who does not take up his cross and follow after Me is not worthy of Me. He who finds His life will lose it, and he who loses his life for My sake will find it” (Matthew 10:38-39).
Matthew by D A Carson in the Expositor’s Bible Commentary
A Theology of Matthew by Charles Quarles
A Gospel of Matthew by France
Matthew by Craig Bloomberg
Matthew by Doriani
Matthew by Charles Price
Matthew by Leon Morris
Blue Letter Bible
 A W Pink Sermon on the Mount