Don't Repay Slap for Slap
By Lee Jones
“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 an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also.
— Matthew 5:38-39
We often use the line about Jesus fulfilling the Law and not abolishing it without really considering the implications of it. We are blessed to have an excellent picture of all that work of Christ in two verses, if we do a little digging.
First, we have to go to the Old Testament source for Jesus’ quote in the first place. Moses is commenting of the Law in Deuteronomy when he says in 19:20,21, “The rest will hear and be afraid, and will never again do such an evil thing among you. Thus you shall not show pity: life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.”
…we who have been given a divine heart transplant can focus on the ministry of reconciliation, not a ministry of retribution.
The Law in this instance is trying to take a bite out of crime, like an ancient McGruff the Crime Dog. If you hurt someone, in the eye, they get to hurt you back the same way. It is an attempt at proportionality in punishment, especially in a time when hard and fast systems of criminal justices were not in place, and also a preventive against further harm. Even in v. 19 it is said to be done to purge evil from the Israelite camp.
Jesus rather sets a different standard here, one of non-retaliation. He gives a clarifying example. We have a seemingly petty strike here, what would amount to a back-handed slap for a right-handed person (facing the victim, back of right hand to the victim’s right cheek). By slapping the aggressor in return, the victim would be guaranteed to escalate this squabble into a fistfight and real harm would be done.
Side note: we also can’t buy the idea the liberals tell us, that Jesus therefore abolished all violence, even in self-defense. He instructs the disciples to buy swords in Luke 22:36, and the Apostles also defended themselves verbally against accusation too in Acts. Also, the Bible clearly authorizes governments and law enforcement bodies to wield the power of the sword.
The real point here, however, isn’t merely the prohibition of revenge, as vengeance is the LORD’s. The real point is that Jesus fulfilled this Law, as witnessed by many people.
It was prophesied the the Servant of the LORD would be trampled upon, and Isaiah 50:6 says, “I gave My back to those who strike Me, And My cheeks to those who pluck out the beard; I did not cover My face from humiliation and spitting.” He was to take plenty of blows in accomplishing His mission.
Isaiah will go on to describe the Suffering Servant like a quiet sheep led to slaughter (Isaiah 53:7). Jesus took every affliction. He effectively turned the other cheek to His torturers, and broadly to every one of the elect, accepting the shame and hatred they heaped on Him in unrighteousness. He carried all their sins on the cross, became sin for us, and gave us the right to become children of God.
As Jesus said in the Beatitudes, you are blessed when you are reviled for Christ’s sake. Jesus will expound on this in the next few verses but for now we are focusing on what Christ has done for us, and how we should behave in light of that finished work.
As we follow Jesus, we can forgive our attackers. Paul carries that teaching forward in his letter to the Romans, “Never pay back evil for evil to anyone. Respect what is right in the sight of all men. If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men (Romans 12:17-18).” We are to be peacemakers, according to the Beatitudes, and Paul exhorts his fellow believers to leave off revenge, to live peaceably with our neighbors, as far as it depends on us. That’s huge; only God can change our neighbors’ hearts, but we who have been given a divine heart transplant can focus on the ministry of reconciliation, not a ministry of retribution.
Glory to God alone.