16. The Kingdom Response To Personal Injustice (Matthew 5:38-42)Related Media
“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist the evildoer. But whoever strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other to him as well. And if someone wants to sue you and to take your tunic, give him your coat also. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two. Give to the one who asks you, and do not reject the one who wants to borrow from you.
Matthew 5:38-42 (NET)
How should we respond towards personal injustice—when people hurt and offend us? Scripture teaches that the Christian response must be very different from the world’s.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Christ teaches about the righteousness of kingdom citizens. He said in Matthew 5:20 that if our righteousness doesn’t surpass the righteousness of the teachers of the law and Pharisees, we will not enter the kingdom of heaven. Then Christ describes six misinterpretations of the Old Testament law by Israel’s teachers. He considered murder (Matt 5:21-26), adultery (Matt 5:27-30), divorce (Matt 5:31-32), and oaths (Matt 5:33-37). In Matthew 5:38-42, he considers the fifth misinterpretation of the law—“eye for eye” and next he’ll consider “hate your enemy” (Matt 5:43-48). The Pharisees’ teachings on all these subjects were incorrect. On each of these, they lessened the standard of God’s law. They did the same with the OT’s teaching on “eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.”
“Eye for eye and tooth for tooth” was a fundamental principle of OT civil law. It taught that the punishment must fit the crime. This principle was the basis of many ancient laws including the Code of Hammurabi, which was written over 100 years before the Mosaic law1, and it is the basis of the legal system today. In Latin, it is called lex talionis; it is the same idea found in the expressions “tit for tat” or “quid pro quo.”2 As with all the OT law, it represented God’s righteousness and was a good law. It was especially good because it allowed for fairness in the administration of justice and it restrained man’s sinful nature. Typically, when somebody hurts us, we want more than an eye for eye. The selfish anger inside of us typically wants a face or a body for an eye. We saw this in the story of the rape of Jacob’s daughter, Dinah, by a Hivite (Gen 34). When the brothers’ heard about this, instead of taking the culprit to court and seeking an equal punishment, they killed all the men from the culprit’s village. They took much more than an eye for an eye. Blood feuds like this were common in the ancient world. Therefore, God’s law restrained sin.
Interpretation Question: How were the Jewish teachers of the law abusing the OT law, “Eye for eye and tooth for tooth”?
“Eye for eye and tooth for tooth” was never to be judged and implemented by individuals. It was always meant to go before the court system. Exodus 21:22-25 says:
“If men fight and hit a pregnant woman and her child is born prematurely, but there is no serious injury, he will surely be punished in accordance with what the woman’s husband demands of him, and he will pay what the court decides. But if there is serious injury, then you will give a life for a life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.
The punishment for hurting this pregnant woman and potentially her baby had to be agreed upon by not only the husband but the court. The court would approve a punishment equal to the crime—eye for eye, tooth for tooth. It is worth noting that if the baby had died, the punishment would have been life for life. God reckoned the baby as an adult life, which disagrees with abortion laws in most countries.
The Pharisees applied the law of “eye for eye” not only to courts, but to personal relationships, which only justified the natural sin within the human heart. However, we as believers are not to be identified by obeying our sinful nature but our new nature. We are to live as citizens of heaven on earth. How then should we respond when others hurt us? Essentially, it could be summarized by simply saying, we must give up our rights. In the following verses, Christ describes four ways that we should give up our rights when wrongs are committed against us. These four examples probably have specific applications to being persecuted for our faith. In Matthew 5:10, Christ said, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to them.” If we model the characteristics of the kingdom as seen in the Sermon on the Mount, we will be hated and persecuted by this world. And our response, on a personal level, should not be fighting for our rights—seeking an eye for an eye—but sacrificing our rights, even as Christ did on this earth when he went to the cross.
The teachings in this passage are some of the most abused verses in Scripture. Some have used these verses to support pacifism—the belief that any violence, including war, is unjustifiable. This has led some believers to not join the military, serve as policemen, work in government, or even practice self-defense. This passage has even been used to promote lawlessness and anarchy. Are these applications correct? As we study this passage, we’ll consider four ways believers should respond to personal injustice.
Big Question: What rights must Christians be willing to give up as they serve Christ and respond towards wrongs committed against them?
Christians Must Willingly Give Up Their Right to Retaliation
But I say to you, do not resist the evildoer. But whoever strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other to him as well.
Interpretation Question: Does “do not resist the evildoer” mean that we should never resist evil or an evil person?
Some have said that “do not resist the evildoer” means that Christians should not resist evil at all in society—again not allowing a Christian to serve in the military or the justice system. However, when this verse is compared with other Scriptures, we know that this is a wrong interpretation. Even in this section of the Sermon on the Mount, Christ is confronting the Pharisees’ wrong teachings on the law. He is resisting evil. He did the same in John 2, when he went into the temple, flipped tables, and ran the people out who were cheating the worshipers. Most of the epistles are Christ’s apostles resisting evil and evil people, as they wrote to correct false teaching and false teachers. In fact, Christ commanded believers to resist evil among fellow church members. In Matthew 18:15-17, he said when someone is in sin, we should confront him first one on one, then with two or three others, and if he still won’t repent, it should be brought before the church. And if the person still clings to his sin, he should be removed from the congregation. To obey Christ, Christians must, in fact, resist evil! It’s part of their call as salt and light in the world. They are to expose and remove darkness.
To further support the need to resist evil people, Romans 13:1-7 says that God instituted government for that very purpose—to punish wrongdoers and reward those who do good. Romans 13:4 says: “For it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be in fear, for it does not bear the sword in vain. It is God’s servant to administer retribution on the wrongdoer.”
Though Matthew 5:39 is often used to promote pacifism—the belief that all violence, including war, is unjustifiable—that interpretation contradicts the rest of Scripture. Throughout the OT, God called nations and court systems to punish others for their sins. Even Israel was sent to Canaan for a holy war to bring God’s judgment on a wicked people. And the NT teaches that governments and nations still play that role today. Because of this, there is something that theologians call a “just war.” For example, when a nation is committing genocide by wiping out people groups or minorities, it is just to stop them, even if violence is necessary. It is just and merciful. Therefore, we should commonly pray for our leaders, as they seek to bring peace nationally and throughout the world (1 Timothy 2:1-4), and we should consider whether God is calling us to serve among them. God is still calling Josephs, Joshuas, Moseses, Davids, and Daniels to serve in government—to protect people, bless them, and at times, to wisely execute justice.
Therefore, Christ is not commanding believers to never resist an evil person, and he certainly is not forbidding the government and court system from executing justice. This is made clear by the next phrase: “To the person who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other as well.” Christ was forbidding personal retaliation, not civil justice. He was dealing with how we respond when evil is committed against us personally. In that case, we should give up our right to retaliate and instead respond gently. His teaching doesn’t mean we should never call the police or seek justice from an authority. (We’ll talk more about this later). It means it is not our right to exact justice.
Interpretation Question: Does Christ’s command to turn the other cheek mean that we should never defend ourselves if somebody tries to physically assault us?
No, that doesn’t seem to be the cultural meaning of his statement. When Christ refers to being slapped on the right cheek, he is not referring to being physically attacked. To be slapped on the right cheek, one would need to use the back of one’s right hand (as most people are right handed), which was culturally considered a deep insult. According to rabbinical law, being slapped with the back of the hand was twice more offensive than being slapped with an open hand.3 It was like being called a nothing and, in context, it probably referred to being called a heretic.4 Again, Christ is probably referring to being persecuted for the faith, as demonstrated by Matthew 5:10-12. Following Christ often led to persecution. A Christian might have been slapped and shamed by family, friends, or even a rabbi for turning from Judaism to Christianity.
Christ taught that his followers should not respond with evil for evil. We should not slap back or try to hurt people when they insult us. Instead, we should willingly take the suffering and give up our right to retaliation.
Certainly, we saw this in the life of Christ. When others were being cheated in the temple, he was like a lion. He fought for their rights and the honor of God. He resisted and exposed evil, as we are also called to do (Eph 5:11). But when the Pharisees raised up deceivers to lie about Christ at his trials, before he went to the cross, he was like a lamb. He said nothing (cf. Mk 14:55-61) and, instead, allowed God to defend him. Christians must do both—fight for others’ rights and, at the same time, in gentleness, be willing to give up our right to retaliation.
First Peter 2:20-23 says:
For what credit is it if you sin and are mistreated and endure it? But if you do good and suffer and so endure, this finds favor with God. For to this you were called, since Christ also suffered for you, leaving an example for you to follow in his steps. He committed no sin nor was deceit found in his mouth. When he was maligned, he did not answer back; when he suffered, he threatened no retaliation, but committed himself to God who judges justly.
When persecuted for our faith or for other reasons, believers must willingly endure suffering. Now, this does not forbid us from going to the police or the court, but it forbids us from taking judgment into our own hands. God has instituted the government, the law system, and authorities in general for those reasons. It is not our place to take vengeance. We see this with Paul when the Jews were trying to kill him while he was imprisoned in Caesarea. In response to the injustice, he appealed to Caesar—the highest court in the land (Acts 25). He used the justice system. We have that right as well.
How do you respond when others slap or insult you? Christ said kingdom citizens will give up their rights to personal retaliation. This supernatural character marks us as kingdom citizens in this world. We willingly suffer personal assaults in order to love God and others more than ourselves.
Application Question: Why is it so hard to give up our right to personal retaliation? Should believers always turn the other cheek when insulted? If not, why not, and how should we discern when to pursue justice? If possible, describe a time when you decided to turn the other cheek and the results.
Christians Must Willingly Give Up Their Right to Possessions
And if someone wants to sue you and to take your tunic, give him your coat also.
Interpretation Question: What was Christ referring to when talking about being sued for a shirt and offering one’s coat as well?
The second right believers must be willing to relinquish for Christ is that of possessions. When Christ referred to being sued for a shirt, he was referring to a tunic, which was more like an ancient suit. A person would typically own multiple tunics. The coat, however, was very expensive, and people typically only owned one.5 Often, they were used as blankets to keep people warm at night and in the winter.
Would somebody ever sue another for his clothes? In those times, when people could not compensate with money, sometimes they would pay with clothing. In court, people could be sued for the very clothes on their body, especially if they didn’t have other valuables. However, according to the Mosaic law, people couldn’t be sued for their coats. Keeping one’s coat was an inalienable right. It was considered inhumane to take a person’s coat. How would they stay warm at night or in the winter? If it was taken as a pledge, it had to be returned by the evening (cf. Deut 24:12-14). Exodus 22:26-27 says:
If you do take the garment of your neighbor in pledge, you must return it to him by the time the sun goes down, for it is his only covering—it is his garment for his body. What else can he sleep in? And when he cries out to me, I will hear, for I am gracious.
Again, though this applies to being sued over possessions generally, it has specific reference to the persecution of Christians. Early Christians commonly experienced the loss of their property over their beliefs. Hebrews 10:32-35 says,
But remember the former days when you endured a harsh conflict of suffering after you were enlightened. At times you were publicly exposed to abuse and afflictions, and at other times you came to share with others who were treated in that way. For in fact you shared the sufferings of those in prison, and you accepted the confiscation of your belongings with joy, because you knew that you certainly had a better and lasting possession. So do not throw away your confidence, because it has great reward.
They joyfully accepted the confiscation of their property. Was it theirs? Absolutely. But, as they served Christ, they relinquished their rights to their possessions and didn’t fight over them. And so must we.
Our possessions are to be held with an open hand before the Lord. This will seem very difficult to those who have zealously strived to accumulate things: books, electronics, homes, and cars. However, Scripture teaches that the whole earth is the Lord’s (Ps 24:1). We don’t own anything. We are just stewards of the Lord’s resources. In fact, in Matthew 6:19-21, Christ calls us to not store up riches on the earth but to practice simplicity, since riches have a tendency to steal our hearts. Also, in 1 Timothy 6:6-8, Paul taught that we should learn to be content with food and covering. If we have understood and practiced these principles with our possessions, it will be much easier to relinquish them, if the Lord calls us to, and respond in love to those who persecute us.
We should also note that even though one had a legal right to keep his coat, in this case, he was not to avail himself of that right. In personal relationships, we should never seek vengeance, we should leave it to God or seek justice through the authorities. But at times, it is God’s will for us to not even insist upon our legal rights. First Peter 4:8 says, “love covers a multitude of sins.” In love, many times we should not only forgive but also not insist on justice. In 1 Corinthians 6, the members of the church were suing one another, and Paul sharply rebukes them by saying: “The fact that you have lawsuits among yourselves demonstrates that you have already been defeated. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be cheated?” (v. 7). Essentially, he says why not love them and Christ more than your personal rights. This is the Christian way, and so we must prayerfully consider this in situations where our legal rights are violated.
Are you willing to let go of your possessions out of devotion to Christ and love for those who seek to harm you? These types of sacrifices are commonly the way God saves our enemies and draws them to repentance.
Application Question: Why is it so hard to give up our rights to our possessions? Why should we be willing to give them up, even when they are unjustly taken?
Christians Must Willingly Give Up Their Right to Personal Time
And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two.
The next example Christ shares considers our right to our time. Roman soldiers had legal rights to make a civilian carry their luggage up to one Roman mile, which was slightly less than a mile today. However, they could not make civilians carry the luggage longer than that.6 This is probably what happened with Simon of Cyrene when he was forced to carry Jesus’ cross (Matt 27:32). The Jews hated such impositions. When Christ said this, he separated himself from the zealots and others who wanted to overthrow the government because of such infractions. Though we may not have direct applications to this in our society, there are certainly indirect applications. James Boice said:
To us that means that we are not to be resentful when people call us on the telephone and take up valuable time—just because they do not have anything to do. And we are not to be surly when we are given added work at the office, are saddled with someone else’s work, or are sent out for coffee when we are in the middle of something we think important. We are to do it cheerfully and as unto the Lord.7
How do you respond when someone imposes on your time and energy? Are you gracious? Do you recognize that your time and energy are the Lord’s and he can use them, as he sees fit? Do you trust God’s sovereignty in the interruptions of the day—including disruptions and impositions by those who are rude and disrespectful, like a difficult boss or family member? Our time is not ours. It is the Lord’s, and we must use it even to serve those who hurt and harm us. This is often God’s method of saving the lost and bringing repentance in the lives of the redeemed.
Are you offering your time to the Lord? Are you willing to sacrifice it for the benefit of others, even the rude and unthankful? Sacrifice of time and energy for others, including the unthankful, will mark kingdom citizens in this world. Does it mark you?
Application Question: Why is giving up our time for others so difficult, especially when they are ungrateful? How can we prepare for unplanned interruptions and handle them graciously? Describe a time you willingly sacrificed time and energy for someone who was rude and/or ungrateful and the effects of that sacrifice on them and yourself.
Christians Must Willingly Give Up Their Right to Personal Money
Give to the one who asks you, and do not reject the one who wants to borrow from you.
Finally, we must not only sacrifice our rights to retaliate, to our own possessions, and to our time, we also must give up our rights to our money. Again, this is very difficult to hear, as money is very hard to earn and even harder to keep. We naturally feel that since we earned our money, it is not right for anybody else to have it. We often struggle with the government taking so much of our money in taxes. In our hearts, we think, “I earned this! Why are they taking it!?” With the poor, we think, “Why don’t they work for their own money and stop being lazy!?” But if we are followers of Christ, our money is the Lord’s, and we are to be extremely generous with it.
Christ said to give to the one who asks and to not turn away the one who wants to borrow. Now this, maybe more than the other statements, seems impossible to follow. If we give to everyone who asks, then we’ll have no money. How can this be done? Well, first Christ is not talking about giving to those who do not have legitimate needs or who would use the money in harmful ways like purchasing alcohol. Sometimes giving to others will actually hurt them. There is a need for discernment. In 2 Thessalonians 3, there were people in the church not working to provide for their needs who were waiting on the coming of Christ. In order to do this, they began to depend on the generosity of other church members. However, Paul said if people do not work, they shouldn’t eat (v. 10). The church was called to not support these errant members but to warn and challenge them in love (v. 15). There is a need for discernment—we certainly shouldn’t give money to every request.
With that said, sometimes it is very hard, if not impossible, to discern if the needs are legitimate. Certainly, we must try our best. But when it is impossible, it has been said that it is better “to help a score of fraudulent beggars than to risk turning away one man in real need.”8 There is wisdom in this saying that believers should heed.
In general, our use of money is a tremendous indicator of our spiritual health. It reveals what we love. Do we love ourselves more than God and others? First John 3:17-18 says,
But whoever has the world’s possessions and sees his fellow Christian in need and shuts off his compassion against him, how can the love of God reside in such a person? Little children, let us not love with word or with tongue but in deed and truth.
John is giving tests of true salvation (according to his statement in 1 John 5:13). One of the tests is whether we are generous to needy believers. If not, do we really love God? Is his love truly abiding in us? The implied answer is no. True salvation will change our relationship with God, others, and even our money. Others will be more important than our money. Christ said that people will know that we are his disciples by the way that we love one another (John 13:35).
Does the way that we use our money and other resources demonstrate that we are true believers? Are we sacrificially loving others with our money?
Now with that said, we are also commanded to care for our family. Paul said if we don’t care for our family, we are worse than an infidel (1 Tim 5:8). We practice our faith by first caring for our families, but we also practice it by loving others sacrificially. Ephesians 4:28 says, “The one who steals must steal no longer; rather he must labor, doing good with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with the one who has need.” Believers should work to not only provide for themselves and their family but to help others in need.
In following Christ, are you giving up your rights to your finances? Listen, Christ offers the best retirement plan that anyone can ask for: “But above all pursue his kingdom and righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matt 6:33). He taught “give and it shall be given unto you” (Lk 6:38). And, Paul said this in 2 Corinthians 9:6-9:
My point is this: The person who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the person who sows generously will also reap generously. Each one of you should give just as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, because God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to make all grace overflow to you so that because you have enough of everything in every way at all times, you will overflow in every good work. Just as it is written, “He has scattered widely, he has given to the poor; his righteousness remains forever.”
There are many promises given to those who are generous givers: God promises to bless givers with all their needs and with tremendous open doors for good works. As they faithfully give, God will provide their needs and expand their ministries.
Have you given up your rights to your money? Are you using your money to bless those in need, including those who harm you? Romans 12:20-21 says, “Rather, if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in doing this you will be heaping burning coals on his head. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
In order to do this, we must be willing to use our money to bless the unlovable. When we do this generously and joyfully, we look like God, and God will bless us.
Is your money the Lord’s—for him to use to bless others as he wills? Or is your money primarily used for selfish purposes?
Application Question: What makes Jesus’ teaching about giving money to whoever asks so difficult? How can we practice this kind of generosity? What are some probing questions to ask ourselves for discerning when to give and when not to?
1. In responding to personal injustice, we must remember that as followers of Christ, we are called to take up our cross (Luke 14:27)—meaning give up our rights.
Christ was just and deserved no punishment, but he gave up his rights and entrusted them to God. In the same way, we must give up our rights as we serve others and at times experience injustice. We must daily take up our crosses as we follow our Lord. Our lives should not be worldly—consumed with our right to retaliation, possessions, time, and money. Our primary duty and right are to sacrificially love God and others, which at times includes bearing the insults and pain caused by others.
In Luke 14:27, Christ said, “Whoever does not carry his own cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” The life of the cross is proof that we are disciples, and therefore saved. Have you given up your rights? Are you carrying your cross by dying to your rights?
2. In responding to personal injustice, we must remember that the ability to give up our rights is supernatural—given through the Spirit of God.
As believers, we still have a flesh that wants to fight for our rights—it desires to hold grudges and seek revenge. However, as we live a life of the Spirit, by obeying God and abiding in him, the fruits of the Spirit are born in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, perseverance, goodness, etc. (Gal 5:22-23). Therefore, we must repent when we walk in the flesh, and we must pray for grace to love those who are unlovable and to give up our right to retaliation. As we draw near Christ through prayer, time in the Word, fellowship, and obedience, he empowers us to live like him. Galatians 5:16 says to walk in the Spirit, and we will not fulfill the lusts of the flesh.
3. In responding to personal injustice, we must remember that love is the primary way we minister to those who hurt us, and God is the one who pursues justice.
Again, Romans 12:17-21 says:
Do not repay anyone evil for evil; consider what is good before all people. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all people. Do not avenge yourselves, dear friends, but give place to God’s wrath, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay,” says the Lord. Rather, if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in doing this you will be heaping burning coals on his head. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
God will bring vengeance; we should bring love. Now certainly, when God places us in positions of authority such as a parent, boss, or government official, we must, as his representatives, bring discipline in those positions. But in that discipline, we must remember mercy and seek to act in a way that is fair and God-honoring.
4. In responding to personal injustice, we must remember that the life of the cross is a rewarded life.
In Matthew 5:5, Christ said, “Blessed are the meek for they will inherit the earth.” Though we don’t fight for our rights now but, instead, choose to sacrifice and serve others, one day everything will be given to us. Though, as Christians, we sacrifice much of what the world pursues and fights for, we will one day be rewarded eternally. It will all be worth it in the end. In eternity, the reward for the meek will be great.
Does your life bear the marks of kingdom citizens—willing to lovingly bear the burden and pain from others—or citizens of this world—consumed with your personal rights and comfort?
Application Question: What other applications did you take from Jesus’ teaching on “eye for eye” and our need to give up our rights in love for God and others?
Consider Kent Hughes inspiring thoughts on this passage:
Jesus changes our lives! We no longer consider it our duty to get even. “Eye for eye, tooth for tooth” is fine for the court, but not for our relation to others—even our enemies. Thanks to Jesus, we have let go of our legalistic obsession with fairness. We are glad that Jesus was not fair with us, for if we were to have gotten what was coming to us, it would not have been good. As Jesus’ followers we give ourselves to the highest welfare of others, even our enemies. We put up with the sins and insults of others for Christ’s sake and theirs. Though hurt many times before, we refuse to withdraw into the shell of self. We do not run from hurt. We appear weak, but we are strong, for only the most powerful can live a life like this. But the power is not ours, but Christ’s. Everything comes from Christ.9
How should Christians respond to personal injustice?
- Christians Must Willingly Give Up Their Right to Retaliation
- Christians Must Willingly Give Up Their Right to Possessions
- Christians Must Willingly Give Up Their Right to Personal Time
- Christians Must Willingly Give Up Their Right to Personal Money
Copyright © 2019 Gregory Brown
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1 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1985). Matthew (pp. 329–330). Chicago: Moody Press.
2 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1985). Matthew (pp. 329–330). Chicago: Moody Press.
3 Hughes, R. K. (2001). The sermon on the mount: the message of the kingdom (p. 133). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.
4 Hughes, R. K. (2001). The sermon on the mount: the message of the kingdom (p. 133). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.
5 Boice, J. M. (2002). The Sermon on the Mount: an expositional commentary (pp. 137–138). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.
6 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1985). Matthew (pp. 334–335). Chicago: Moody Press.
7 Boice, J. M. (2002). The Sermon on the Mount: an expositional commentary (p. 138). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.
8 MacDonald, W. (1995). Believer’s Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments. (A. Farstad, Ed.) (pp. 1222–1223). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.
9 Hughes, R. K. (2001). The sermon on the mount: the message of the kingdom (pp. 136–137). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.
Related Topics: Christian Life