Rev. VanderWal is pastor of Hope Protestant Reformed Church in Redlands, California.
Jesus Christ, the King of the kingdom of heaven, draws out of the Old Testament another law of which He is the fulfillment: “Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.”
This law is out of Exodus 21:24. This passage, along with verse 23, gives more examples. “And if any mischief follow, then thou shalt give life for life, Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burning for burning, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.” This “mischief” addresses specifically the harm done to a woman with child. However, Christ makes the matter far more broad than that specific instance. The principle expressed with these particular words is equity, a just balance between the harm committed and the retribution exacted.
The words of this Old Testament law were to prevent injustice in retribution. In the punishment meted out to evildoers, there are two wrong tendencies toward injustice. The first tendency is the exaction of more than was due. A man would commit some harm against his neighbor. A judge would receive the victim of such violence and hear his complaint. His wrath would be aroused against the offender. Out of that anger he would pronounce his sentence. That sentence would require greater punishment than was proper. The intent of this law was to prevent that. Not an eye for a tooth, but a tooth for a tooth.
The opposite tendency might arise in another case. The same act of violence may have been committed. This time, however, the offender might be a man of some influence or means. The judge who heard this particular case would have the inclination either to dismiss the case altogether, or to require only a token punishment. The intent of this law, again, was to prevent such a lapse in justice. The punishment must be equal to the crime. Not a tooth for an eye, but an eye for an eye.
Against the background of this Old Testament law, the words of Christ that follow are weighty. “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. And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloak also. And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain. Give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away.”
As with the law that Christ quoted from the Old Testament, His words here are also addressed toward the same tendency: injustice. There has been damage done. The question is how the citizen of the kingdom of Christ shall answer that injustice. How moderate must he be? How exact must he be? The words of Christ are so striking here because they require the very opposite of exacting any vengeance. They demand a giving: the offering of the right cheek, the offering of one’s cloak, the offering of another mile beyond the one demanded.
These different commands of Christ are concrete examples of the principle demanded in the words that precede: “that ye resist not evil.” The word “evil” refers to some wrong brought to bear upon the Christian, something that causes him pain or injury. It is contrary to his nature. Thus, it is evil unto him. This evil he is called not to resist. He is called instead to suffer it. He must submit wholly to it, showing the completeness of that submission by giving even more.
Weighty words indeed! They expose a wicked tendency we have within ourselves. By these words, our King teaches us that, when suffering some evil, our first reaction is to make that person to feel in himself the pain he has inflicted upon us. That pain may be physical, regarding the cheek. That pain may be the loss of personal property, a coat. That pain may be the forced loss of time and energy, a mile. Whatever it is, when we feel it inflicted upon ourselves by another, we want to inflict it back, and that always in a greater measure. In the first moment of suffering this injury, we have no thought of justice, whether justice among men, or justice with God.
That reaction, brought out in the first moment of injury, is a great evil. It is the evil of pride. Out of that pride, we give more weight to injury inflicted upon us by others than any like harm done to the neighbor. We give it more weight than any transgression of God’s commandments. Compare some personal injustice done to you with the profaning of God’s holy name. Which is more likely to arouse your anger?
Rather than the taking of vengeance, we are called to give place.
There are two illustrations that show these words of Christ in their application. The first is from the reign of King David. Absalom’s treachery forced him to leave the city of Jerusalem, and cross over Jordan into safety. As David went, Shimei cast stones and dust at him and cursed him. David had just borne the loss of his kingdom by means of a rebellious son. Yet, he did not take vengeance upon this “dead dog,” as Abishai called him. Rather than seek revenge, David committed the matter into God’s hands. He did not make it his business to render an eye for an eye, or a tooth for a tooth. Instead, he looked for the vindication of God. Knowing that the hand of God was in all these things, He meekly submitted to this awful treatment.
The second illustration is our Lord Jesus Christ. Speaking of His bearing of evil, Peter wrote, “Who, when he was reviled, reviled not again; when he suffered, he threatened not; but committed himself to him that judgeth righteously” (I Pet. 2:23). We must think upon the unjust treatment He received. He was smitten on the cheek. He had His coat taken from Him. He was compelled to carry His cross to the hill of Calvary. Instead of exacting vengeance, calling down more than twelve legions of angels, He meekly submitted to this unjust treatment. By His actions, He showed full compliance with His own law. The King Himself submits to His own law!
Even more, He gave. He is the fulfillment of the law. In that suffering He gave Himself. He not only endured the contradiction of sinners. He also made atonementfor them, even while they contradicted Him. They compelled Him to be crucified. He suffered and died in their stead. He did not even pray for God’s vengeance to be executed upon them. Instead He prayed for their forgiveness: “Father, forgive them: for they know not what they do.” They would take His coat. He gave them His cloak also.
At the cross of our King we also find the fulfillment of the Old Testament Scriptures that He quoted, “An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.” By this very death, He made full satisfaction to the justice of God. God required an eye from the sinner. Jesus Christ gave that eye in the sinner’s behalf. God required a tooth from the sinner. Jesus Christ gave that tooth in the sinner’s behalf. For every offense committed by every elect sinner, Jesus Christ gave payment in full by His suffering and death.
At the cross, we find the only power also to fulfill this law of our Lord. There are times we find it so very hard to let go of our vain pride. Often we want to exact personal vengeance in the worst way. In such cases, we must remember the work of our Lord for us. We were the guilty, the violators of this law. Yet, He died in our stead, despite the worst treatment. So grateful must we be, therefore, that we are ready to give up all things that belong to self, that Christ might be magnified. And, in that way, Christ is glorified. His people show forth the glory of their great King.
The citizen of the kingdom of Christ, walking in this way of self-denial, must understand that the words of Christ here give a balance. His words do not destroy the law, but fulfill it. Self-denial, and the calling to “turn the other cheek,” does not entirely abrogate the administration of justice in every sense. In some respect the teaching must still apply: eye for eye, tooth for tooth.
The application of justice must be conducted in the realm of the church. Those appointed to positions of government in the church of Jesus Christ are called to rule with equity. Those doing evil in the church, maintaining doctrines and practices against the Word of God, are punished by means of the key of Christian discipline. Justice is observed in the communion and fellowship of the saints. Where one wrongs another, apology and forgiveness must be the result. This principle must live in the covenant home. Wherever evil is found in the children of the home, that evil must be resisted through discipline.
The administration of justice against evil has its proper, God-given place also in the civil realm. A magistrate’s responsibility is to punish evildoers. It would be clearly wrong for him not to resist the evil. Even in such a pagan system of justice as Rome’s, the sheer administration of justice can be summarized by the words of the Old Testament law, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” (Rom. 13:2-4).
There is also a proper place for the Christian within the system of law and government. “Resist not evil” does not prohibit the Christian from taking up arms in defense of his country. Nor does it bar the Christian from law-enforcement or the administration of justice in a courtroom. There is also a proper place for the Christian within the court itself. He may bring charges against those who attempted to take or who have actually taken his rightful property. He may request that the civil court take vengeance upon his adversary. We think of Paul pleading for his rights before the audience of Felix and Agrippa and his appeal to Caesar.
However, even in these cases, the Christian must repudiate all self-interest and self-motivation. Before any pursuit at law, the Christian does well to ask himself what motivates him in that pursuit. If His motive is anger, or desire of revenge, he enters such a pursuit to his own detriment. It is better for him to offer the other cheek, to give up his cloak also, and to go two miles. In that way, he should learn self-denial, a far greater virtue than any victory at law.
1.How are these words of Christ sometimes used to promote pacifism, the belief that war is forbidden to Christians? Is this correct? Prove from other Scriptures.
2.Are there circumstances in which a Christian is specifically forbidden from suing others? When and how? What Scriptures specifically address this?
3.To what degree is desire of revenge given exposure in today’s society and culture? Is it present as a theme in modern media? Must the Christian avoid and shun such media?
4.Are we required literally to carry out the injunctions of this passage? Would such a thing go too far in some cases? How might it not go far enough in others?