Prepared by Dr. John E. Marshall
Matt. 5:38b “. . .An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth:. . .”
This Old Testament (EX 21:24; LV 24:20; DT 19:21) law of equal retaliation was extremely important. A humane enactment, it sought to end the ferocious blood feuds which were far too common in Moses’ day. The ancients lived by one harsh rule–kill anyone who does you wrong, however slight the offense. The historically significant law of tit for tat laid the groundwork for two basic principles.
First, the law of like for like was given in the Old Testament to ensure all matters of retribution would be handled by courts of law. This law was meant to be used by the judiciary, not by people with personal vendettas.
Second, the law of equal retaliation required Judges not to abuse their power. This law said they must seek a just proportion between a crime and its punishment. Let the penalty fit the crime–not too light, not too severe.
The law of equal retaliation was a wonderful step forward in human history. It took revenge away from hotheaded vigilantes and individuals. It remains to this day the most efficient framework for any legal system, the best guide for Judges.
The Scribes and Pharisees had taken this law of equal retaliation, which was a rule to regulate the decisions of Judges, and claimed it sanctioned personal revenge, private retaliation for private wrongs.
They wrested from the law the very trait which made it a marvelous enactment. Jesus thus felt a need to correct them.
Matt. 5:39 “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.”
By forbidding His followers to take personal vengeance, Jesus returned and limited the law of equal retaliation to its rightful judicial setting. Jesus sought to destroy in His followers the act of private revenge. A believer, when affronted, never has a right to retaliate in a spirit of revenge. The absence of vindictiveness against evil people who harm us is a distinguishing mark of Christian conduct.
For believers, the rule is absolute–no revenge, no vengeance, no hatred, no bitterness, no holding a grudge. Some misinterpret this to mean Christians are to roll over and play dead, and allow people to run roughshod over us. It is absolutely essential to view Jesus’ vivid phraseology in our text only in light of the wrong He was specifically seeking to correct here. Remember, a text out of context is a pretext. Christ was attacking the act of private revenge, a practice common and condoned in His day. Keeping this in mind helps us understand Jesus’ intent here.
Jesus opposed personal revenge, but this does not mean He intended His followers to be listless and lifeless. The Bible straightforwardly allows believers to act, to take initiative, to do certain things in their own behalf.
First, the Bible allows Christians to be assertive for a good cause. “Resist not evil,” taken out of context, has been misused and abused as an excuse for cowardice. It is always right to stand up lovingly for right and to oppose evil. Jesus denounced and opposed the Pharisees (MT 23). He also told us to confront a brother who offends us (MT 18:15-17). Christians are permitted, yea required, to be straightforward and proactive in interpersonal relationships. We merely have to, in all our dealings with others, include love and exclude revenge as a motive.
Second, the Bible allows Christians to resist personal violence. Christ did not teach pacifism. A slap in the face is vastly different from one’s life being in danger. We have the right to protect ourselves, our families, and others against bodily harm. We can do what must be done on the spot to restrain an assailant.
We are permitted to respond in kind to an attack when in physical danger, but such drastic cases are extremely rare. Usually the only thing at stake is not our physical health, but our ego. In fact, in Jesus’ day, slapping a person was less a pain than an insult and an indignity. When slapped, hit, or insulted, we will usually be in no danger of harm if we do not strike back, and should thus respond not in kind, but in kindness. In personal affronts, the best part of wisdom is usually to ignore them. If not in physical danger, rather than retaliate to a first wrong, be willing to submit to a second, and even worse, wrong if necessary. For believers, it is better to receive several injuries without response than to revenge one.
Whenever one undertakes to avenge wrongs done to his or her own self, one becomes judge and jury in their own case. Impartiality being an impossibility, personal revenge almost always exceeds the injury which provokes it. We pay back with interest. People who initially wrong others end up suffering more than they inflicted on others. Thus, this first assailant in turn strikes back with an even worse blow, and the conflict escalates, getting worse and worse with each salvo.
Jesus expects His followers to interrupt this vicious cycle by never letting it get started. Do not strike back. The first aggressor is guilty of provocation, but the second blow creates a fight. Only when in danger can we respond in kind.
Third, the Bible allows Christians to use legal recourse in their own behalf. Abuse of the judicial system is disallowed (Matthew 5:40, I Corinthians 6:1-8), but we are permitted to have our legitimate grievances addressed by due process of law. It is okay for a Christian to appeal to the courts. Paul the Apostle often protected himself by using legal recourse. When threatened to be struck in court, Paul met the suggestion with a solid rebuke (AC 23:3), expecting the magistrates to do right and to protect him. When his life was in danger, Paul did not hesitate to appeal to his Roman citizenship to protect himself (AC 16:37; 22:25; 25:10).
Our precious Lord, when slapped in court, did not turn the other cheek. He was wronged and not afraid or too timid to say so. He gave a firm response (JN 18:22-23), His intent being not revenge or retaliation, but merely legal justice.
Christians must remember that government is as much ordained of God as the Church is. There are times when retaliation is needed, when matters need to be set right, when “an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth” applies. For such cases, God ordained that calm, impartial, deliberative authorities be set aside to serve as His avengers of wrong. Paul dealt with public revenge in close proximity with private revenge in his letter to the Romans. “Recompense to no man evil for evil. . . .Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord” (12:17a,19b), and one way He executes this rightful vengeance is by delegating the task of retaliation to magistrates. A ruler “is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil” (13:4b). This revenge is proper, but only government can take it.
It is okay to oppose wrong, to confront one who offends us, to resist personal violence, to go to court. Straightforward dealings are allowed. Revenge is disallowed. Paul was right when he protected himself, Jesus was right when He said He had been wronged, but if Peter intends to be Christ’s disciple, he must put away his sword of revenge, his sword of taking the law into his own hands.