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6. Sweet Revenge (Matthew 5:38-42, Romans 12:17-21)

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Matthew 5:38-42
Romans 12:17-21
July 25, 2004


Around 120 A.D., a Roman satirist named Juvenal wrote these words:

Indeed, it's always a paltry, feeble, tiny mind that takes pleasure in revenge. You can deduce it without further evidence than this, that no one delights more in vengeance than a woman.

Ladies, how do you feel about that? Don’t you just want to kill the man that said that? I’ve got good news for you. He’s already been dead for almost 2000 years. You know, when I hear this, I just wonder what this guy’s wife must have been like!

The truth is that it’s not just women who are interested in revenge. We all are. It’s something that we find sweet and satisfying—to know that the other person got what was coming to them. We love to get even.

Jesus also has something to say about the subject of revenge, and unlike his contemporary, he meant this teaching for both men and women.

Back before the 40 Days of Purpose began, we were studying the teachings of Jesus in Matthew 5-7, also called The Sermon on the Mount. It’s part of what we’re calling “The Jesus Curriculum”, the things that Jesus wanted us his followers to know.

First Jesus talked about the character of the people who are in the kingdom. Then he talked about the code of the kingdom: the way Jesus wants his followers to be.

He tells us that our righteousness must be genuine—not just external actions, but internal attitudes. In Jesus’ day, (The Pharisees)

But Jesus wants both our external actions and our internal attitudes to match his character.

1a For example, everyone agrees that murder is wrong. That’s obvious. But murder is merely the external evidence of an internal attitude.

1b Jesus said that it is also wrong to harbor unresolved anger in your heart—whether or not it leads to murder.

2a Likewise, nearly everyone recognizes that adultery is wrong.

2b But Jesus says that it’s also wrong to nurture sexual desire in your heart for someone other than your spouse.

3a God permits divorce because when a marriage has failed, it’s wrong to just abandon your spouse and leave them unable to remarry.

3b But Jesus says that it’s wrong to capriciously divorce your spouse just because you’re tired of being married to him or her.

4a Lastly, we saw that it’s wrong to go back on your word.

4b But Jesus says that the important thing is to be a truthful person, inside and out.

Title: Sweet Revenge

As we return to this passage in Matthew 5:38, we find that the next few verses are about justice and revenge. God has given us some legitimate avenues for justice here on earth, but Jesus warns us that personal revenge is something completely different. Revenge may taste sweet, but it’s wrong.

As as John Milton wrote in Paradise Lost:

Revenge, at first though sweet,
Bitter ere long back on itself recoils.

Our passage today is a very confusing one that has often been misunderstood in several different ways. It’s led to all kinds of sloppy thinking about what kind of a person Jesus was and what he taught.

This passage is also the source of four very well-known sayings that almost everyone has heard or used before, but not everyone understands:

An eye for an eye.

Turn the other cheek.

Go the second mile.

Give him the shirt off your back.

So let’s open our Bibles and take a look at what Jesus teaches about revenge in Matthew 5:38

[5:38] "You have heard that it was said, 'Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.'

Anti = instead of (same word used of Jesus dying instead of us).2

A replacement.

This was meant to restrain revenge, to make sure that the punishment did not exceed the crime. There was room for grace and alternative punishments. But this kept people from going too far in their punishments.

When someone hurts us…

Our natural tendency is payback.

We want them to hurt like we were hurt. We talk about getting even, and settling the score. The idea is that because they hurt us we now owe them some hurt in return. And that’s one debt we’re only too glad to settle. In fact, usually it’s not enough to “get even”. We usually want to add just a little more. Like playing poker: I see your insult and I raise you a poke in the eye!

This policy, written into the OT, was actually designed to prevent personal vendettas from inflicting a harsher punishment than the criminal deserved. If somebody blinded someone, they shouldn’t be killed for it. They should be held accountable for only an eye. Many times these debts were paid with a cash settlement—whatever amount an eye or a tooth was worth. The Bible supports measured justice.

But even if we stay within the bounds of inflicting reciprocal pain, we’re still missing the point. Because our external conformity to the demands of justice is often masking an internal problem: we want revenge. And revenge is sin. So Jesus says,

[5:38] "You have heard that it was said, 'Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.' [39] But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person.

When we are hurt, we want payback.

But Jesus says, “Don’t fight back.”

The word “resist” means “to oppose, set one’s self against”

Stand plus Anti. “To be hostile towards”

The idea is not so much about non-resistance as it is about not facing off.

This is not pacifism (a refusal to meet evil with violence or war).

There seems to be plenty of room in the Bible for self-defense.

But this is clearly not aggressive, either.

This verse is a specific warning not to take personal retribution.

Don’t escalate the situation by “getting even”.

Rather, de-escalate. Diffuse. Lower the stakes.

Pacify. Endure. Forgive.

This is not a natural response:

—Nikita Khrushchev, Soviet statesman, wrote in 1971

“We had no use for the policy of the Gospels: if someone slaps you, just turn the other cheek. We had shown that anyone who slapped us on our cheek would get his head kicked off.”

Jesus calls us to respond counter-intuitively. Instead of meeting evil with equal or greater force, he urges us to meet evil with a completely different force: with good. Instead of paying back in kind, we are called to pay back with kindness.

There’s a parallel passage in Romans 12 that explains how this works.

Romans 12:17-21 (NIV) Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody.

Don’t do evil just because someone did evil to you.

They did the wrong thing. You do the right thing.

Doesn’t that sound like something you tell your kids?

The younger one hits the older one. So the older one hits them back.

Then the younger one complains to mom and dad.

“Mom, Jimmy hit me.”

Mom says, “Jimmy, did you hit your little sister?”


“Why would you do such a thing?”

“Because she hit me first.”

And you want so bad for them to get it.

“Look, you take care of you and I’ll take care of your little sister. Believe me, you’ve got your hands full taking care of you. You just concentrate on making sure that you’re doing the right thing and don’t worry about what your sister is doing. I’ll take care of her.”

That’s exactly what God is trying to say to us. Don’t get involved in the business of trying to get even—making sure everybody gets what they deserve. That’s God’s job and he’s really good at it. Instead, we’re supposed to try to get along as much as possible.

[18] If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.

May not be possible, but we should do whatever we can on our side.

But if we do that, if no one stands up to the aggressor, if we don’t give him what he deserves, then he’s just going to keep on doing it! If he gets away with it this time, he’s just doing to do it to someone else. Where does that leave justice?

God has an answer for you:

[19] Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God's wrath, for it is written: "It is mine to avenge; I will repay," says the Lord.

God will take care of justice. It may not be when we want it. It may not be how we want it. But He will make sure that justice is done.

This policy is not a lack of justice. It is a call not to take personal revenge in order to get justice. Leave justice and revenge to God.

Some of that justice we won’t see until we get to heaven. But some of that is going to happen here on earth. In fact, God has a special agent he uses for that very purpose. No, it’s not me…or you. It’s the French. That is, it’s the French government…and the American government and the South African government and the Iraqi government. The Bible says that God uses government to bring a measure of justice to the world. It’s not perfect justice and it’s not enough. But while we’re waiting for the perfect justice of the Kingdom, the governments of the world at least hold back evil and bring some modicum of justice to the world. They are God’s justice agents, God’s instruments.

Romans 13: 4 (NIV) [Government] is God's servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God's servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.

The sword = the power execution and waging war

A legitimate, biblical function of government is to punish those who do wrong. And when they do, they function as God’s agents to punish evil. That is part of how God administers justice. It’s not perfect. But one day, God’s going to fix all that, too, and there will be perfect justice. So in the meantime, we’re supposed to keep out of it and let God do his thing. We’ve got a different job to do. Paul goes on in Romans 12:

Do not take revenge… [20] On the contrary: "If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head."

[21] Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

We are to answer evil with good. The trap is to be overcome by evil, to be so hurt, so wounded that we too choose an evil path by personally trying to settle the score. But God says, try paying back evil with good. What happens is even more devastating to the person who hurt you.

Everybody understands tit for tat. That’s the way the world works. But they have a really hard time with paying back evil with good. It makes their conscience burn. It drives them to rethink their approach because it’s not producing what they expected. That’s the way to overcome evil. Not by fighting it. Not by punishing it. Not by stamping it out. But by smothering it with kindness and generosity until it can no longer breathe.

Let’s go back to our passage in Matthew 5. Starting in verse 39, Jesus gives us four examples of this principle of answering evil with kindness and generosity.

Physical assault

Unfair lawsuits

Compulsory service

Exploited generosity

Here’s the first one in verse 39:

[5:39] If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.

In Jesus’ day, getting struck on the right cheek meant a slap across the face with the back of the hand. (Who wants to illustrate?)

It was a terrible insult (and still is today in the Middle East).

This verse doesn’t mean don’t defend yourself.

It doesn’t mean to ask for another hit.

Both Jesus and Paul were literally struck on the cheek and both of them appealed to their rights. But they also didn’t hit back.

And that’s the force of this verse. If you are struck, if you’re insulted, don’t fight back. Don’t retaliate. Don’t try to get even. Let it go. Forgive.

It would be better to receive a second blow on the other cheek than to stoop to the same level as the person who attacked you.

That’s what it means to turn the other cheek. Don’t try to get even.

In other words,

Be kind and generous even when…

Someone verbally or physically assaults your person

The good news is, you don’t have to wait for violence to put this principle into practice. Have you ever met someone at church or school or on the job and they just weren’t very nice to you? It wasn’t because of anything you did—or maybe it was—but they just weren’t very kind or friendly. How did you respond? I tell you what we all like to do. We like to say, “Well, fine. Two can play at that game. I’m just going to be not friendly right back.”

Turning the other cheek, though, means answering that snub with kindness and generosity—being friendly to them even though they were unfriendly to you. It’s not some masochistic desire to be snubbed again, but it’s showing your face as if there has been no offense, because you’ve already forgiven them and you’re leaving the issue of justice and fairness to God.

The second example is in verse 40:

[5:40] And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well.

The tunic was a shirt, the garment worn closest to the body. On top of that you wore a cloak which was almost like a blanket. In our day, you might sue someone’s pants off. But in Jesus’ day they didn’t wear pants. So Jewish law permitted a person to sue someone for their shirt.

The cloak was actually protected by law. It could not be taken away.

The lawsuit in this verse might be a legitimate case, but I think there is also an overtone in this passage that suggests that it might even be an unfair settlement. Once again, the idea is not that a Christian is some wimp, that if you get unjustly sued that you shouldn’t put on a defense or you should automatically give the plaintiff all he’s asking for and more. The idea is again that we shouldn’t try to get even. Don’t counter-sue to get them back and make them pay. Instead, be generous with what you own. Hold on to your possessions loosely. So loosely that you’re willing to give them up if the only way to hang onto them is to fight for them, stooping to the same level as the one who is cheating you.

In other words,

Be kind and generous even when…

Someone unjustly cheats you out of your property

If you’re in the wrong, make a generous settlement. And if you’re not in the wrong, put on a defense, but don’t try to get revenge. Don’t hold so tightly to what you own that it prevents you from making peace. In 1 Corinthians 6:7, Paul says, “The very fact that you have lawsuits among you means you have been completely defeated already. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be cheated?”

The third example is in verse 41:

[5:41] If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.

In the Roman Empire, a soldier or government official could force someone to carry their luggage for them. However, Roman law said that a person could only be forced to do this service for one mile and then he was free to go.

I’m sure that no one liked this forced labor when it happened. They probably resented it just as much as we do when we’re forced into something. I can just see some slave saying, “Fine. I may have to carry his stuff, but you never know what might happen to it. It could get really dirty if I accidentally drop it in the mud. You just never know.”

But Jesus says, don’t resent it. Don’t try to get even. Instead be generous. Repay evil with good. Offer to go another mile. Give him more than he has the right to demand.

In other words,

Be kind and generous even when…

Someone forces you to do something against your will

Here’s a nice practical example. How many of you like paying taxes? Don’t you resent it? Don’t you wish you could find some way to make sure the government doesn’t get a dime? I wonder if Jesus would suggest that in addition to paying our taxes with gladness that we also pay the second dollar. The government supports all kinds of social programs that feed, house and educate the poor. We could resent having to pay for it or we could say, “You know, I can do better than that. I can volunteer to build a house or teach someone to read. I can support an organization that provides baby supplies for unwed mothers.”

If there’s something that you’re doing only because you have to do it, be careful that you don’t find subtle little ways of venting your resentment by getting revenge. Jesus says, do it gladly and then on top of that, be generous.

The final example is in verse 42:

[5:42] Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.

This is another one of those verses that causes so much soul-searching and confusion. At face value, this seems to be saying that we should give everyone whatever they ask for. In fact, I’ll make it even more unappealing. I think that because of the context, it’s probably talking about people who are actually taking advantage of your generosity. What they deserve is nothing. But Jesus tells us to continue to be generous. Don’t try to punish them by cutting them off from help. Be kind. Be generous. Even if they mistreat you or manipulate you or lie to you.

In other words,

Be kind and generous even when…

Someone takes advantage of your generosity

Almost every week we have someone who’s never been to our church come by off the street looking for money. Many of them are liars. One Sunday morning this guy came by here looking for money to get his car fixed. He said needed an operation and the only place he could get it done was at the VA hospital in Houston because that’s where he was registered. If we could just give him enough to repair his transmission, he was going to drive there. His surgery was scheduled for tomorrow.

When I hear a story like that, my heart goes out to this poor guy. I imagine what it would be like to be in that situation and I think about everything that God has given me. And I want to do something to help him. Except for one thing.

I remembered the same guy driving the same car telling David Nicholson the exact same story on another Sunday morning about a year earlier. Dave gave him about $50. So I told him: “You know what? You were here a year ago and you told us that exact same story.” And that guy got angry and started shouting at me and telling me what a sorry church we were that we wouldn’t even help someone in need. Then he drove away. It’s amazing to me how many of the folks who ask us for money know this verse in Matthew, “Give to the one who asks you”. And they’re ready to quote it as soon as it becomes obvious that they’re not going to get what they asked for.

You know, there are a lot of things that bug me, but one thing that really hacks me off is when people take advantage of grace. And when someone does that, when they answer our generosity with insults and threats, when they demonstrate absolutely no gratitude for our kindness or the church’s money or my time, it makes me really angry. You know what I’d like to do? I’d like to insult them right back. I’d like to never waste another minute of my time with them. I’d like to make sure they never see another dime from us.

But Jesus says, “Don’t turn away.” Don’t try to get even. Don’t try to make sure they get what they deserve. Be kind and generous.

By the way, this verse doesn’t say, “Give people whatever they ask of you.” It says, “Give to the one who asks you.” There are many requests we cannot fulfill. There are many requests we should not fulfill. We should ask questions and we have to use discernment in handling requests for money. But there’s no reason that in the process we can’t be kind and generous, even when someone takes advantage of our generosity. You know what? That’s part of the Kingdom Code.


Jesus says, I know that justice is important to you. I know that it hurts when you’ve been wronged. But be careful. There’s a danger here. Never let your thirst for justice turn into a quest for revenge. Don’t get even. You’ve been attacked and cheated and forced and taken advantage of. But answer the evil with kindness and generosity. And then leave everything else to God.

1 Copyright 2004 by Lewis B. Bell III. This is the edited manuscript of Lesson 6 in the The Kingdom Code series delivered by Chip Bell at Fellowship Bible Church Arapaho in Dallas, TX on July 25, 2004. Anyone is at liberty to use this lesson for educational purposes only, with credit.

2 ajnqivsthmi1. be hostile toward; 2. resist, oppose, rebel, set one’s self against

ajnqivsthmi, to set against, to set up in opposition 2. to match with, compare stand against, especially in battle, to withstand, oppose. 2. absolute to make a stand.

ajnqivsthmi, set against, in battle, set up in opposition, weigh against, outweigh. 2. match with, compare. II. Passive with intransitive.—stand against, especially in battle, withstand. 2. of things, turn out unfavourably to one. 3. absolute, make a stand, resist, fight on.

Related Topics: Forgiveness

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