A group of Christian women were singing hymns on the street. An angry passer-by struck one of the women down to the ground. The police later asked her if she wanted to press charges. She declined, thinking that she was being faithful to Jesus’ teaching:
· "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.” (Matthew 5:38-39)
Paul had similarly written:
· Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord”…Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:17-21)
This Christian woman thought it wrong to resist the “evil person” by pressing charges. In her mind, such a response would contradict Jesus’ teaching on non-resistance. However, most of us do not take this teaching literally. Jesus had often taught figuratively or hyperbolically - plucking out you eye or cutting off your hand if it causes you to sin, not letting your left hand know what your right hand is doing, hating your parents, and letting the dead bury the dead. We don’t take these teaching literally. Then, should we take “turn the other cheek” literally?
An “eye for an eye” had been a progressive judicial principle that required the punishment fit the offense (Exodus 21:23-27). Cutting off a man’s hand, if he stole a loaf of bread to feed his family, was not justice. However, the rich and powerful consistently appealed to an unbiblical understanding of “eye for an eye” to justify personal revenge, as the Bible Background Commentary explains:
· In Israel and other cultures, this principle was enforced by a court and refers to legalized vengeance; personal vengeance was never accepted in the law of Moses... The Old Testament did not permit personal vengeance.
Even though the OT never sanctioned an “eye for an eye” for personal revenge, it had been used for this purpose. The Jamison-Faucett-Brown Commentary also agrees on this point:
· This law of retribution—designed to take vengeance out of the hands of private persons, and commit it to the magistrate—was abused…this judicial regulation was held to be a warrant for taking redress into their own hands, contrary to the injunctions of the Old Testament itself (Proverbs 20:22; Proverbs 24:29).
In light of this, Jesus’ argument wasn’t against Mosaic Law’s teaching of an “eye for an eye” (Exodus 21:24), a judicial principle that demanded that a punishment fit the crime. Instead, it was against the abuse of the Law for the purpose of revenge. Consequently, Jesus’ teaching to “not resist an evil person” should be understood as a warning against retaliation and revenge and not complete non-resistance to evil. In fact, Jesus often resisted evil. Instead of passively lying down, he proactively exposed the hypocrisy of the religious leadership. When the High Priest asked Jesus about His doctrine in an attempt to bring a death sentence upon Him, Jesus resisted him:
· One of the officials nearby struck him in the face. "Is this the way you answer the high priest?" he demanded. If I said something wrong," Jesus replied, "testify as to what is wrong. But if I spoke the truth, why did you strike me?" (John 18:22-23)
Although the leadership was trying to prove Jesus’ guilt, He demonstrated that they were the guilty ones. Jesus was never reluctant to highlight the hypocrisy of His detractors. Healing first requires an accurate diagnosis of the problem. Their problem was sin, it had to be exposed in hope that it might incline them to cry out for the only possible healing – reconciliation with the God they had rejected.
Meanwhile, our detractors charge, “Well, the church doesn’t seem to follow Jesus, does it? Jesus preached non-resistance!”
However, Jesus didn’t follow such a teaching either. Although He always condescended to heal the broken and humbled, He also resisted the requests of the arrogant and hardened. He resisted the efforts of the Jews to make Him king; He resisted when they wanted to kill Him before His appointed time. When asked to judge, He resisted:
· Someone in the crowd said to him, "Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me." Jesus replied, "Man, who appointed me a judge or an arbiter between you?" (Luke 12:13-14)
Jesus was never pressured or coerced into doing anything in opposition to His person or mission. Everything He did and said was done in service to the truth. He always spoke the truth in love, although it often contained a painful denunciation (Matthew 23). Rather than serving as an example of non-resistance, we find that Jesus consistently resisted sin by exposing it (Ephesians 5:11).
Jesus resisted Satan who tempted Him saying, "If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread" (Matthew 4:3). Jesus didn’t practice non-resistance by saying, “Whatever you say, Satan! Bread from stones, coming up! Want it buttered?” Instead, He stayed true to His mission:
· Jesus answered, "It is written: 'Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.'" (Matthew 4:4)
On many occasions, Jesus resisted his own Apostles. When two of them requested the supreme honor of reigning on either side of their soon-to-be King, He denied their request. After Peter rebuked Jesus for confiding that He was facing death, Jesus didn’t practice non-resistance. He didn’t say, “Well, since you don’t want me to go to the cross, I guess I won’t.” Instead, He sharply rebuked Peter:
· "Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men." (Matthew 16:23)
On at least one occasion, Jesus even resorted to violence, driving the money-changers out of the Temple with a whip (John 2:15-17), hardly an example of non-resistance! Evidently, Jesus was only teaching against a certain type of resistance – revenge.
However, our atheistic mockers will retort, “Well it seems that Jesus was teaching more than non-retaliation. He taught that his followers should allow their attackers to abuse them. Isn’t that what it means to turn the other cheek? Shouldn’t you then allow your assailant to strike your other cheek?”
Jesus wasn’t teaching against self-defense or the defense of wife and children. Instead, He upheld this principle, especially when it concerned one’s family:
· Therefore, stay awake, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But know this, that if the master of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. (Matthew 24:42-43)
This would require strenuous self-defense, something that both Moses and Jesus sanctioned. Instead, Jesus often spoke hyperbolically:
· “If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away.” (Matthew 5:29-30)
No one takes this teaching literally. If we did, we would all be eyeless and handless, and this would violate a Mosaic law against mutilating the body. Clearly, we have to take this verse figuratively. Jesus concluded:
· It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell. (Mat 5:30).
Therefore, if cutting you hand off could spare you from eternal judgment, then cut off your hand. This would indeed be a very small price to pay to escape hell. However, we all know that such surgery couldn’t possibly save us, but if it could, we should do it.
In Matthew 5:38-42, we find a similar teaching. Jesus gives several hypothetical situations to illuminate what He means by “Do not resist an evil person.” In His first example He states, “If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.”
Although Jesus allowed Himself to be physically abused during the crucifixion day, prior to that, He always avoided arrest. He never even allowed His right cheek to be struck!
Jesus regarded the Mosaic Law as God-given (Matthew 5:17-19; 4:4; 22:29; 24:35; John 10:35; 14:21-24; Luke 24:44-45). This Law never deprived a husband of his right and duty to protect his family against assault (Matthew 24:42-43). It is therefore unthinkable that Jesus would deny this legal privilege by teaching non-resistance. We therefore can’t take this teaching literally.
What then does this teaching mean? Rather than retaliating with “eye for an eye,” Jesus seemed to be teaching that it is better to allow yourself to be insulted or perhaps even abused than to pursue revenge, taking the law into your own hands. It is better to go the extra mile required by the “evil man” than to retaliate. In the same vain, He had taught that it’s better to cut off your hand than to continue in sin. Not that you should cut your hand off or allow yourself to be abused, but both of these unenviable outcomes were preferable to a life of sin.
Jesus’ next example reads,
· And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. (Matthew 5:40)
Once again, Jesus seems to be teaching that it is better to voluntarily surrender your cloak than to vengefully retaliate for the sake of your tunic. This teaching certainly doesn’t mean that we should not avail ourselves of legal means to protect our home, family or business. Allowing ourselves to be abused for no higher cause does not glorify our Lord. It just shows our ignorance and brings unnecessary derision down upon our heads.
Jesus’ merely taught that we shouldn’t invoke “eye for an eye” as a justification for revenge! In fact, Paul appealed for legal protection on many occasions. Clearly, we are not called to be doormats, allowing our families to suffer abuse. This will not glorify the Lord nor manifest His wisdom.
There are godly ways to resist evil, and there are ways that are unsuitable for the Christian, as well as for others. The Christian woman, who had been assaulted for singing hymns, did not seek revenge, but she should have pressed charges. She owed that to others who this assailant might now be emboldened to attack.
Indeed, she should pray for him and try to show him the love and forgiveness in Christ, but she should also have resisted the “evil person” in a legal and godly manner.
Did Jesus believe in capital punishment as prescribed by the Mosaic Law? Those who believe in a meek and mild Jesus believe that He had rescinded the “harsh” penalties of the Law. However, it seems that He did not:
· He [Jesus] answered them [the Pharisees], “And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? For God commanded, ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and, ‘Whoever reviles father or mother MUST SURELY DIE.’” (Matthew 15:3-4)
As God-the-the-flesh, Jesus claimed to uphold all of the words of His righteous Father. Therefore, as the Father threatened judgment, we find the same with the Son.
Let’s now return to Paul’s teaching, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:21). Does this mean that we shouldn’t bring charges against those who violently assault us or our families?
Certainly not! Instead, Paul taught that we shouldn’t take personal revenge. Rather, we should let God avenge:
· Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” (Romans 12:19)
How does God express His wrath? It is not just in the final judgment. Nor is it a wrath that works simply according to the creation order that He has established (Romans 1:18-28). He also expresses His wrath through the legal, governmental order that He has ordained:
· 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, 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. (Romans 13:3-4)
God ordained this justice system to restrain evil. It is therefore a system that we should uphold and even use. Paul taught us to submit to these authorities by paying them “taxes” (13:6) and “honor” (13:7).
How do we honor them? By respecting their office, by serving as witnesses against evil (Eph. 5:11), and even by pressing charges, when appropriate! If we know a gang is committing rapes and we fail to testify against them, then we become moral accomplices and bring disrepute upon our faith by allowing them to continue unchecked.
We also honor the authorities by allowing them to do their job. It is not our job to bring justice. We cannot form vigilante groups or take revenge. However, we can help the governing authorities by bringing to them charges of criminal wrongdoing. If we fail to do this, we are guilty before God:
- He who justifies the wicked and he who condemns the righteous are both alike an abomination to the Lord. (Proverbs 17:15)
I would therefore counsel the young lady to press charges against her assailant. This is the righteous thing to do. It also represents an expression of love towards our community to restrain the assailant.
“How then are we to overcome evil with good?”
I was asked, “What would you do if you ran into someone who had just enlisted to go fight with ISIS?”
I answered that I would invite him for a cup of coffee and an apple pie. In gentleness, I would then try to reason with him to repent. However, if he wouldn’t, I would call the authorities to have him detained.
Our calling to love our enemies is not in conflict with our calling to support the authorities. Instead, they should both go together.