Matthew 5:38-39 Commentary

Seemon on the Mount by Carl Heinrich Bloch (1834-1890)

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"Sermon on the Mount"

Matthew 5:38 "You have heard that it was said, 'AN EYE FOR AN EYE, AND A TOOTH FOR A TOOTH.' (NASB: Lockman)

Greek: Ekousate (2PAAI) oti errethe, (3SAPI) Ophthalmon anti ophthalmou kai odonta anti odontos.

Amplified: You have heard that it was said, an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth. (Amplified Bible - Lockman)

NLT: "You have heard that the law of Moses says, 'If an eye is injured, injure the eye of the person who did it. If a tooth gets knocked out, knock out the tooth of the person who did it.' (NLT - Tyndale House)

Philips: "You have heard that it used to be said 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth' (New Testament in Modern English)

Wuest: You heard that it was said, An eye in substitution for an eye, a tooth in substitution for a tooth. (Wuest: Expanded Translation: Eerdmans)

Young's Literal: 'Ye heard that it was said: Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth;

YOU HAVE HEARD THAT IT WAS SAID, 'AN EYE FOR AN EYE, AND A TOOTH FOR A TOOTH: Ekousate (2PAAI) oti errethe, (3SAPI) Ophthalmon anti ophthalmou kai odonta anti odontos. (Exodus 21:22, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27; Leviticus 24:19,20; Deuteronomy 19:19)

Charles Simeon writes…

IF Christianity be worthy of admiration on account of the sublime mysteries it reveals, it is no less so on account of the pure morality it inculcates. Its precepts are as far above the wisdom of fallen man, as its doctrines. Search all the systems of ethics that ever were written, and where shall we find such directions as these? In vain shall we look for them in the productions of Greece and Rome: in vain shall we consult the sages and philosophers of any other nation: such precepts as these are found no where but in the inspired volume. The law of retaliation has in all nations been deemed equitable and right: but in the Christian code it is expressly forbidden. (Read the entire sermon - Matthew 5:38-41 Retaliation Forbidden)

It was said (in Exodus) -

22 "And if men struggle with each other and strike a woman with child so that she has a miscarriage, yet there is no further injury, he shall surely be fined as the woman's husband may demand of him; and he shall pay as the judges decide.

23 "But if there is any further injury, then you shall appoint as a penalty life for life,

24 eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot,

25 burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.

26 "And if a man strikes the eye of his male or female slave, and destroys it, he shall let him go free on account of his eye.

27 "And if he knocks out a tooth of his male or female slave, he shall let him go free on account of his tooth. (Ex 21:22-27)

It was said (in Leviticus) -

‘If a man injures his neighbor, just as he has done, so it shall be done to him: 20 fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; just as he has injured a man, so it shall be inflicted on him. (Leviticus 24:19, 20)

It was said (in Deuteronomy) -

then you shall do to him just as he had intended to do to his brother. Thus you shall purge the evil from among you. And 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. (Deuteronomy 19:19, 20, 21)

See F B Meyer's related comments on (Matt. 5:38-42) in his discourse entitled The Second Mile

J C Ryle introduces Mt 5:38-48 with this comment…

WE have here our Lord Jesus Christ's rules for our conduct towards on another. He that would know how he ought to feel and act towards his fellow-man, should often study these verses. They deserve to be written in letters of gold: they have extorted praise even from the enemies of Christianity. Let us mark well what they contain. The Lord Jesus forbids everything like an unforgiving and revengeful spirit. (Matthew 5:38-48 Expository Thoughts)

You have here our Lord Jesus Christ's rules for our conduct one towards another. He that would know how He ought to feel and act towards his fellow men, should often study these verses. They deserve to be written in letters of gold. They have extorted praise even from the enemies of Christianity. Let us mark well what they contain…

There is much in all this (Mt 5:38-48) which calls loudly for solemn reflection. There are few passages of Scripture so calculated to raise in our minds humbling thoughts. We have here a lovely picture of the Christian as he ought to be. We cannot look at it without painful feelings. We must all allow that it differs widely from the Christian as he is. Let us carry away from it two general lessons.

In the first place if the spirit of these ten verses were more continually remembered by true believers, they would recommend Christianity to the world far more than they do. We must not allow ourselves to suppose that the least words in this passage are trifling and of small moment. They are not so. It is attention to the spirit of this passage which makes our religion beautiful. It is the neglect of the things which it contains by which our religion is deformed. Unfailing courtesy, kindness, tenderness, and consideration for others, are some of the greatest ornaments to the character of the child of God. The world can understand these things, if it cannot understand doctrine. There is no religion in rudeness, roughness, bluntness, and incivility. The perfection of practical Christianity consists in attending to the little duties of holiness as well as to the great.

In the second place, if the spirit of these ten verses had more dominion and power in the world, how much happier the world would be than it is. Who does not know that quarrelings, strifes, selfishness, and unkindness cause half the miseries by which mankind is visited? Who can fail to see that nothing would so much tend to increase happiness as the spread of Christian love, such as is here recommended by our Lord? Let us all remember this. Those who fancy that true religion has any tendency to make men unhappy, are greatly mistaken. It is the absence of it that does this, and not the presence. True religion has the directly contrary effect. It tends to promote peace, and charity, and kindness, and goodwill among men. The more men are brought under the teaching of the Holy Spirit, the more they will love one another, and the more happy they will be. (Matthew 5 Commentary)

This is Jesus' fifth example of how the righteousness God demands surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees (see note Matthew 5:20) and has to do a believer's response when personally wronged. The “law of retaliation” was not designed to encourage retaliation but to limit it with a view to justice. The Pharisees grossly misinterpreted the OT Scriptures and used them an encouragement for revenge instead of an impediment!

Jesus' radical view is greatly needed in a society where "personal rights", retaliation and getting "one's pound of flesh" have become the norm of the day rather than the exception to the rule! Underlying many of these attitudes and actions is often an angry, vengeful spirit. This is the timeless issues which our Lord addresses in this section of His sermon.

Without a doubt, this section (Mt 5:38-48) has been one of the most misinterpreted and consequently misapplied sections of the entire Sermon. For example, some have appealed to these passages to justify their call for Christians be veritable "doormats". Others have used this section to promote pacifism (opposition to war or violence as a means of settling disputes), conscientious objection to military service, lawlessness (see allusion to Tolstoy below), anarchy, etc. These interpretations however are not logical in view of the fact that Jesus had made in clear that He did not come to annul even the smallest part of God’s Law (see notes Matthew 5:17; 18; 5:19), a Law which includes respect for and obedience to human laws and authorities. In fact the Law of Moses prevented offended people from taking the law into their own hands and seeking private revenge against an enemy. It also kept magistrates from issuing exorbitant sentences that did not fit the offenses.


Spurgeon comments that…

The law of an eye for an eye, as administered in the proper courts of law was founded in justice, and worked far more equitably than the more modern system of fines; for that method allows rich men to offend with comparative impunity, But when the lex talionis came to be the rule of daily life, it fostered revenge, and our Savior would not tolerate it as a principle carried out by individuals. Good law in court may be very bad custom in common society. He spoke against what had become a proverb and was heard and said among the people, “Ye have heard that it hath been said.” Our loving King would have private dealings ruled by the spirit of love and not by the rule of law.

An eye for an eye - This is an exact quotation found in three OT passages (see above - Exodus 21:24; Leviticus 24:20; Deuteronomy 19:21) and reflects the principle of lex talionis, (lex = law + talionis = retaliation = literally the "law of retaliation") one of the most ancient law codes discovered even in the secular code of Hammurabi (a Babylonian king - see article on Babylonian law) composed sometime around 2000BC. Simply put, this law required that the punishment match the crime and corresponds to modern expressions like "tit for tat" and "quid pro quo" (Latin for "something for something"). In that sense lex talionis was merciful for it limited the magnitude of one's revenge, restraining an angry response. Look at the Israeli-Arab conflict today, where retaliation is practiced usually expeditiously but not necessarily "tit for tat" or in kind and/or quantity. This response is what one expects when enmity and animosity seethe beneath the surface of seemingly conciliatory (sometimes) political rhetoric.

In modern society lex talionis is recognized as a foundation for all justice, as all civil, penal and international law has its basis on this ancient principle. As discussed below, in ancient Israel, the right to carry out this principle of lex talionis was restricted to the judges of Israel and not to individuals (independent of the judges or civil authorities).

Kent Hughes adds…

Moreover, (lex talionis) was not literally carried out by the Jewish legal system because they correctly saw that in some cases to do so would result in injustice. For instance, a good tooth might be removed for a bad tooth! Thus they assessed damages just as we do in our courts today. The Mishna devotes an entire section entitled Baba Kamma to assessing proper damages. So we have the traditional Old Testament teaching regarding one's response to personal wrong in the principle of exact retribution. There was nothing intrinsically wrong with that, apart from man's manipulation of it. It brought equity and stability to human relations. (Hughes, R. K. Sermon on the Mount: The Message of the Kingdom. Crossway Books)

And so to reemphasize, one purpose of lex talionis was to prevent excessive punishment based on personal vengeance and angry retaliation.

Another purpose of "an eye for an eye" was to curtail further crime. For example the effect of invoking of this principle is seen in Deuteronomy 19 where Moses records that…

"If a malicious witness rises up against a man to accuse him of wrongdoing, then both the men who have the dispute shall stand before the LORD, before the priests and the judges who will be in office in those days. And the judges shall investigate thoroughly; and if the witness is a false witness and he has accused his brother falsely, then you shall do to him just as he had intended to do to his brother. (the "eye for an eye" idea, lex talionis) Thus you shall purge the evil from among you. And the rest will hear and be afraid, and will never again do such an evil thing among you. Thus you shall not show pity (includes the idea of sparing the guilty party their just due): life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot. (Deut 19:16-21)

Do you see the purpose of the punishment that matched the crime? Moses says

"the rest will hear and be afraid and will never again do such an evil thing among you" (v20)

This OT passage also illustrates that the Law was given to encourage appropriate punishment of a criminal in cases where there might be a tendency to be either too lenient or too strict. Note carefully that the case was tried before Jehovah, the priests and the judges. As discussed below what Jesus was countering in Matthew 5:38-42 was the teaching of the scribes and Pharisees that this law could be applied by individuals out of the jurisdiction of the courts (judges) and thus be used to justify one taking personal vengeance.

As alluded to above, it is critically important to remember that each OT passage that mentions the principle of lex talionis (Exodus 21:22-27; Leviticus 24:19,20; Deuteronomy 19:19) specifies in context that it is to be carried out by the judges and civil authorities of Israel. It is true, that an injured party might be allowed to inflict the actual punishment, but even in these situations it was the civil body that had the responsibility to try and sentence the guilty one. One can readily understand how such a system would serve to prevent an injured individual from over reacting and taking more that their "pound of flesh". It is interesting that even this merciful principle established by God has commonly been misrepresented as vindictive, but it is not. Lex talionis is not a license for cruelty, but a limit to it! It is not a license for vengeance but a guarantee of justice!

In Genesis we read of a notorious example of personal revenge by a wicked man named Lamech who arrogantly declared…

Give heed to my speech, for I have killed a man for wounding me; and a boy for striking me; If Cain is avenged sevenfold, Then Lamech seventy-sevenfold." (Genesis 4:23-24)

What a contrast Lamech's vindictiveness is with the forgiving attitude taught by Christ, Who urged Peter to forgive his brother seventy times seven (Matthew 18:22). Instead of over reaction and excessive punishment of an enemy God's desire has always been…

If your enemy is hungry, give him food to eat; and if he is thirsty, give him water to drink; for you will heap burning coals on his head, and the LORD will reward you. (Proverbs 25:21-22)

Similarly in Proverbs 24:29 we read (in the NIV)…

Do not say, "I'll do to him as he has done to me; I'll pay that man back for what he did." (NIV - IBS)

The practice of personal revenge or personal payback, though widely carried out among the world's nations and tribes, both ancient and modern, is not what the Scripture teaches. God is to be the avenger not us (Deut 32:35, Psalm 94:1 {Spurgeon's note}, Ro 12:19 [note], He 10:30 [note]). It is important to understand that this proverb (and the related Proverbs) lifts up a high ethical principle which is not opposed to “an eye for an eye” (Ex 21:24; Lev 24:20; Deut 19:21), because the Law was intended to be overseen by judges, and it required that the penalty fit the crime. These proverbs are addressed to individuals and describe the heart attitude one should maintain when wronged in any way. The problem that existed among the Scribes and Pharisees in Jesus' day was that they taught a vengeful attitude (see Dr John MacArthur's comment below). There should be no personal retaliation or revenge.

Again in Proverbs we read…

Do not say, "I will repay evil". Wait for the LORD, and He will save you. (Proverbs 20:22)

One with a new heart and His Spirit will leave revenge in God's hands.


John MacArthur explains that the rabbinic tradition had perverted lex talionis, an "eye for an eye", which in the OT

did not allow an individual to take the law into his own hands and apply it personally. Yet that is exactly what rabbinic tradition had done. Each man was permitted, in effect, to become his own judge, jury, and executioner. God’s law was turned to individual license (permit to act, freedom to take a specific course of action), and civil justice was perverted to personal vengeance. Instead of properly acknowledging the law of an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth as a limit on punishment, they conveniently used it as a mandate for vengeance-as it has often been wrongly viewed throughout history. What God gave as a restriction on civil courts, Jewish tradition had turned into personal license for revenge. In still another way, the self-centered and self-asserted “righteousness” of the scribes and Pharisees had made a shambles of God’s holy law. (MacArthur, J: Matthew 1-7 Macarthur New Testament Commentary Chicago: Moody Press)

Ferguson comments that…

Of the entire Sermon on the Mount, no ideas are more frequently alluded to than the ones that follow: an eye for an eye; turn the other cheek; go the extra mile. They are still colorful expressions in the English language. For some people, they are the essence of Christianity. These statements have been used to explain and justify pacifism, by Christians and by others. For the great Russian author Leo Tolstoy (who consequently had a major influence on Mahatma Gandhi), these words produced a revolutionary effect (Ed note: Tolstoy based War and Peace on the thesis that the elimination of police, the military, and other forms of authority would bring a utopian society.) But what do they mean?… What was the purpose of this law, and the justice that it expressed? Clearly, it was to limit and, if necessary, restrain retaliation. It seems, however, that this law was used as the justification for gaining even limited retaliation and revenge. That was to misunderstand the purpose of the law. Since it was meant to restrain personal vindictiveness and retaliation, the real fulfilment of it would be found in the man who did not seek such revenge… The passage is not really speaking to the question of whether Christians should be involved in legal or military professions. Rather, it is challenging believers to follow their Master's example in personal relationships. (Ferguson, Sinclair: Sermon on the Mount :Banner of Truth) (Bolding added)

Freeman in Manners and Customs of the Bible comments that…

This is the principle of justice that requires punishment equal in kind to the offense (not greater than the offense, as was frequently given in ancient times). Thus, if someone puts out another person’s eye, one of the offender’s eyes should be put out. The principle is stated in the Book of Exodus as “Thou shalt give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.” This saying is often quoted today by those who wish to extract equal revenge for something done against them. (Freeman, J. M., & Chadwick, H. J. Manners & Customs of the Bible. 1996. Whitaker House)

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Quote Misquote - In the opening chapter of Tom Sawyer, Mark Twain presents an interesting conversation that reflects human nature. Tom tries to persuade his friend Huck to join him in his plans to form a band of robbers and to take captives much like pirates used to do. Huck asks Tom what pirates do with the captives they take, and Tom answers, "Ransom them." "Ransom? What's that?" asks Huck. "I don't know. But that's what they do. I seen it in books; and so of course that's what we got to do," explains Tom. "Do you want to go doing different from what's in the books, and get things all muddled up?"

This dialog represents a way of thinking that's not much different from what Jesus encountered. The people were also quoting and repeating things they had found in a book--the Old Testament. But they were merely mouthing words. The ideas had been separated from the spirit of the original revelation. By misapplying Mosaic principles of conduct, the people were justifying their sinful attitudes and actions (Mt. 5:27-42).

This should be a reminder to us. When we quote the Bible, let's be sure we understand its meaning and context. Then we won't get things "all muddled up." --M R De Haan II (Our Daily Bread, Copyright RBC Ministries, Grand Rapids, MI. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved)

When reading God's Word, take special care
To find the rich treasures hidden there;
Give thought to each line, each precept hear,
Then practice it well with godly fear. --Anon.

A text taken out of context can be a dangerous pretext.

Matthew 5:39 "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. (NASB: Lockman)

Greek: ego de lego (1SPAI) umin me antistenai (AAN) to ponero; all' ostis se rapizei (3SPAI) eis ten dexian siagona [sou], strepson (2SAAM) auto kai ten allen

Amplified: But I say to you, Do not resist the evil man [who injures you]; but if anyone strikes you on the right jaw or cheek, turn to him the other one too. (Amplified Bible - Lockman)

NLT: But I say, don't resist an evil person! If you are slapped on the right cheek, turn the other, too. (NLT - Tyndale House)

Philips: but I tell you, don't resist the man who wants to harm you. If a man hits your right cheek, turn the other one to him as well. (New Testament in Modern English)

Wuest: but let your word be, Yes, Yes, No, No; and that which is more than these things is of the evil which is in active opposition to the good. (Wuest: Expanded Translation: Eerdmans)

Young's Literal: but I -- I say to you, not to resist the evil, but whoever shall slap thee on thy right cheek, turn to him also the other;

BUT I SAY TO YOU, DO NOT RESIST AN EVIL PERSON: ego de lego (1SPAI) humin me antistenai (AAN) to ponero (Leviticus 19:18; 1Samuel 24:10-15; 25:31, 32, 33, 34; 26:8, 9, 10; Job 31:29, 30, 31; Proverbs 20:22; Proverbs 24:29; Luke 6:29; Romans 12:17, 18, 19; 1Corinthians 6:7; 1Thessalonians 5:15; Hebrews 12:4; James 5:6; 1Peter 3:9)

But - term of contrast

See F B Meyer's related comments on (Matt. 5:38-42) in his discourse entitled The Second Mile

As noted Lex Talionis, the law of retaliation, was never intended to encourage personal revenge, but to protect the offender from punishment harsher than the offense warranted. Jesus forbids citizens of the Kingdom of heaven to seek revenge and instead insists upon positive good in the face of evil

Spurgeon observes that…

Non-resistance and forbearance are to be the rule among Christians. They are to endure personal ill-usage without coming to blows. They are to be as the anvil when bad men are the hammers, and thus they are to overcome by patient forgiveness. The rule of the judgement-seat is not for common life; but the rule of the cross and the all-enduring Sufferer is for us all. Yet how many regard all this as fanatical, utopian, and even cowardly! The Lord, our King, would have us bear and forbear, and conquer by mighty patience. Can we do it? How are we the servants of Christ if we have not his spirit?

J C Ryle writes that…

The Lord Jesus forbids everything like an unforgiving and revengeful spirit. "I say unto you, That ye resist not evil." A readiness to resent injuries, a quickness in taking offence, a quarrelsome and contentious disposition, a keenness in asserting our rights,-all, all are contrary to the mind of Christ. The world may see no harm in these habits of the mind; but they do not become the character of the Christian. Our Master says, "Resist not evil." (Matthew 5:38-48 Expository Thoughts)

Resist (436) (anthistemi from anti = against, opposite + histemi = stand, set) means to stand (up) against, to set one's self against, to arrange in battle against. NAS = cope with(1), oppose(1), opposed(5), opposing(1), resist(5), resists(2).

Anthistemi - 14x in 12v - Matt 5:39; Luke 21:15; Acts 6:10; 13:8; Rom 9:19; 13:2; Gal 2:11; Eph 6:13; 2 Tim 3:8; 4:15; Jas 4:7; 1 Pet 5:9

Evil (4190) (poneros from pónos = labor, sorrow, pain) refers to evil in active opposition to good. It refers to that which is actively harmful. The idea is one who is pernicious, which means highly injurious or destructive, exceedingly harmful, and vicious.

Poneros - 78x in 72v - Matt 5:11, 37, 39, 45; 6:13, 23; 7:11, 17f; 9:4; 12:34f, 39, 45; 13:19, 38, 49; 15:19; 16:4; 18:32; 20:15; 22:10; 25:26; Mark 7:22f; Luke 3:19; 6:22, 35, 45; 7:21; 8:2; 11:13, 26, 29, 34; 19:22; John 3:19; 7:7; 17:15; Acts 17:5; 18:14; 19:12f, 15f; 25:18; 28:21; Rom 12:9; 1 Cor 5:13; Gal 1:4; Eph 5:16; 6:13, 16; Col 1:21; 1Th 5:22; 2Th 3:2f; 1 Tim 6:4; 2 Tim 3:13; 4:18; Heb 3:12; 10:22; Jas 2:4; 4:16; 1 John 2:13f; 3:12; 5:18f; 2 John 1:11; 3 John 1:10; Rev 16:2. NAS = bad(5), crimes(1), envious (1), envy*(m)(1), evil(49), evil one(5), evil things(1),malignant(1), more evil(1), more wicked(1), vicious(1), what is evil(2), wicked(6), wicked man(1), wicked things(1),worthless(1).

Some interpret Jesus as teaching complete nonresistance under any circumstances, becoming in essence a virtual "doormat" for people to walk on! Leo Tolstoy upon pondering the Sermon on the Mount came to the conclusion that this was Jesus' commandment. Based on an inaccurate interpretation, he recommended an inappropriate application, concluding that no Christian should be involved in the armed forces, police or law courts! (One shudders to think what law courts would look like in America if they were completely devoid of the salt and light of genuine believers!)

Kent Hughes in fact gives a tragic illustration of a man who believed as did Tolstoy, writing…

I personally have seen this lived out, for I know a man who was present when his daughter and son-in-law were attacked physically by some thugs over a legal dispute, and the man did nothing to help or protect them. So some believe Jesus outlaws all force in any form. Not all pacifists, however, hold to this view. Some believe force is just and necessary for the police and courts but disavow killing and war. Other Biblical pacifists would not isolate and absolutize this verse but base their beliefs on other Biblical passages, from which a far stronger case can be made. I personally believe this verse does not have anything to do with pacifism as it relates to the killing and taking of life, for that is not what the passage is about. The question of pacifism must be settled, one way or another, on other Biblical grounds… The problem comes when we isolate and absolutize Jesus' words without giving due attention to the context, the flow of the argument, and the specific social implications of the time. Jesus clarified what he meant by providing four one-sentence illustrations of what it means to "not resist an evil person." Each of the illustrations is culturally specific, but they give us general principles for today's living. The principles are not for everyone, but only for those who follow Christ. (Ferguson, Sinclair: Sermon on the Mount :Banner of Truth)

Jesus does not teach Christians are not to resist evil. What He forbids is that Christians do not seek to retaliate in personal relationships, which is what the Pharisees were teaching. The scribes and Pharisees took the lex talionis out of the courtroom and brought it into personal relationships, in essence encouraging their disciples to get their "pound of flesh." Clearly Jesus Himself resisted evil in His reaction to the sacrifice sellers and money changers, John recording that…

He made a scourge of cords, and drove them all out of the temple, with the sheep and the oxen; and He poured out the coins of the moneychangers, and overturned their tables and to those who were selling the doves He said, "Take these things away; stop making My Father's house a house of merchandise." (John 2:15-16)

Furthermore believers are commanded to resist the evil one, the devil…

Submit therefore to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you. (James 4:7-note)

Be of sober spirit, be on the alert. Your adversary, the devil, prowls about like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. But resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same experiences of suffering are being accomplished by your brethren who are in the world. (see notes 1 Peter 5:8; 5:9)

Finally believers are commanded to resist evil in general Paul writing..

Let love be without hypocrisy. Abhor what is evil; cling to what is good. (Ro 12:9-note)

Examine (present imperative = make this your habitual practice) everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good; abstain (present imperative = keep holding yourself away from all that has even the appearance of evil. Middle voice conveys sense we must initiate this action and we participate in results) from every form of evil. (1Th 5:21, 22- notes)

BUT WHOEVER SLAPS YOU ON YOUR RIGHT CHEEK, TURN THE OTHER TO HIM ALSO: all' hostis se rapizei (3SPAI) eis ten dexian siagona [sou], strepson (2SAAM) auto kai ten allen (1Kings 22:24; Job 16:10; Isaiah 50:6; Lamentations 3:30; Micah 5:1; Luke 6:29; 22:64; 1Peter 2:20, 21, 22, 23)

But - term of contrast

Slaps (4474) (rhapizo related to rhábdos = a stick) means to hit with the open hand, especially on the cheeks or ears. Rhapizo should be distinguished from kolaphizo which means to punch or strike with a clenched fist. Both verbs are used to describe the treatment of our Lord on the night He was betrayed, when the Jewish religious leaders (which undoubtedly included a few scribes and Pharisees who had been teaching about "an eye for an eye" - here they were ironically breaking their own perverted teaching!) …

spat in His face and beat Him with their fists (kolaphizo); and others slapped (rhapizo) Him (Mt 26:67)

What is Jesus teaching in his first example of non-retaliation to evil?

Jesus is teaching believers, citizens of the kingdom of heaven, (and these instructions are intended for those who are poor in spirit, those who are meek, those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, etc) that they are not to retaliate to insults.

Jesus gave us the "example… to follow in His steps" (1Pe 2:21, 22, 23, 24, 25-see notes 1Pe 2:21; 22; 23; 24 25) for when He was slapped in the face, though He could have called in a host of angels, He did not personally retaliate (see Mt 26:67, cf Isaiah 50:6)

In Jesus' day a slap to one's face was considered a gross insult by the Jews, and was among the most demeaning and contemptuous acts one person could inflict on another person. Jesus is not describing a physical attack and telling us to roll over and "play dead". He is describing what was well known in the culture to be a calculated insult. A slap to one's face was not intended to cause physical harm but was intended as a terrible indignity, in which one human created in the image of God is treating another human being as even less than a human! A slave would rather receive a rod or whip across the back than a slap from their master's hand!

What does Jesus tell us to do? To turn the other cheek which pertains more to what we are not to do than what we are to do. Why? When you turn the other cheek, you refuse to avenge the gross insult. You refuse to retaliate. If you lived by the letter of the Law as the Pharisees taught what should you do? They would say you should take your revenge and slap "their cheek for your cheek"! Jesus counters their false teaching and says "No, no. You dearly beloved of My Father, you turn your other cheek."

How can one do this naturally? It is not the natural response! It is a supernatural response representing the work of God's Spirit in the new heart of a citizen of the Kingdom of Heaven who is controlled by a gentle, meek spirit that chooses not to respond. Remember meekness is not weakness but power under control and in this example the one slapped by all cultural norms of the day (including the "blessing" of the Pharisees) had a valid right to respond but was under such control by the Holy Spirit that he chooses not to respond. Such an individual has fully surrender his or her personal rights to the Lord.

We are also enabled to be non-retaliatory by the truth and assurance that God is our Protector and Defender as well as a righteous Judge Who will bring all injustice to light.

Francis Bacon wrote that…

“In taking revenge, a man is but even with his enemy; but in passing it over, he is superior.”

Kent Hughes offers an intriguing interpretation (found in several other commentaries) and practical application regarding a slap on the "right cheek" (versus the left cheek)…

Notice that Jesus specifically mentions "the right cheek," which tells us he is describing a backhanded slap (since most people are right-handed, this is surely what Jesus had in mind). According to rabbinic law, to hit someone with the back of the hand was twice as insulting as hitting him with the flat of the hand. The back of the hand meant calculated contempt, withering disdain. It meant that you were scorned as inconsequential - a nothing. Imagine how you would respond. My blood would boil… It was an insult for which a Jew could seek legal satisfaction according to the law of Lex Talionis. That is, he could seek damages. But Jesus says, do not do it! "If you are dishonored… says Jesus, you should not go to law about it; rather you should show yourselves to be truly My disciples by the way in which you bear the hatred and the insult, overcome the evil, forgive the injustice." In short, though you could take your opponent to the cleaners, do not do it! Lovingly absorb the insult… we must not respond by getting even, by getting our legal pound of flesh according to the Lex Talionis, but must turn the other cheek. Jesus calls us to swallow our pride and give up our "rights" to reparation and fairness. That is the basic, essential interpretation.

But there is another level of application that really gets down to where we live: We are to set aside our petty ways of getting even - the kind of living that punishes others by returning their own sins to them. If your spouse is messy, you leave things messy in return. If your friend is late, you will be late next time yourself. In effect Jesus asks us, in turning the other cheek, to make the other person and his or her well-being the center of our focus. We think of them and adjust our actions according to what we think will point them to Christ. And when we really do this, we begin to affect them. Such vulnerable love brings them to spiritual awareness. Evangelist Tom Skinner often told about the time after he was converted when he was playing football with some of the Harlem Lords, members of the gang he had formerly led. During the game someone took advantage of his Christianity and punched, kicked, and insulted him. After the game Tom said, "You know, because of Jesus, I love you anyway." That is what Jesus was talking about. (Hughes, R. K. Sermon on the Mount: The Message of the Kingdom. Crossway Books)

J Vernon McGee has a humorous (albeit not interpretatively accurate) note on this verse…

It reminds me of the Irishman whom someone hit on the cheek and knocked down. The Irishman got up and turned his other cheek. The fellow knocked him down again. This time the Irishman got up and beat the stuffin’ out of that fellow. An observer asked, “Why did you do that?” “Well,” replied the Irishman, “the Lord said to turn the other cheek and I did, but He never told me what to do after that.” (McGee, J V: Thru the Bible Commentary: Nashville: Thomas Nelson)

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A Misunderstood Command - Geoffrey, a dedicated believer, took seriously our Lord's command about turning the other cheek, yet he misunderstood the meaning of what Christ taught. When a man struck him, for example, he turned the other side of his face to his assailant and allowed him to hit it again. He said, "I have now fulfilled the Lord's command." Then he proceeded to pound his foe into submission. That's quite obviously not what Jesus had in mind.

The Russian writer Leo Tolstoy also misinterpreted this command. He said that we should be completely nonresistant when people steal from us or hurt us. His theory was that the wicked would soon be so ashamed that they would correct their ways. But his logic was wrong. Society doesn't operate that way. Without the restraining force of the police, the wicked would completely overpower decent, law-abiding citizens.

What then did Jesus mean when He told us that we should turn the other cheek? He was saying we should not let the desire to get even dominate our lives. Instead, we should be governed by the principles of giving and forgiving. Through the power of the Holy Spirit who lives in us, we can do exactly what Jesus commanded. --H V Lugt (Our Daily Bread, Copyright RBC Ministries, Grand Rapids, MI. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved)

Let me turn the other cheek
As You so often did;
Let me feel the joy of love
When saying, "I forgive." --Monroe

The best way to get even is to forgive as you have been forgiven.

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Alexander Maclaren summarizes Mt 5:33-37 in the following sermon…

Is His treatment of the sixth and seventh commandments, Jesus deepened them by bringing the inner man of feeling and desire under their control. In His treatment of the old commandments as to oaths, He expands them by extending the prohibitions from one kind of oath to all kinds. The movement in the former case is downwards and inwards; in the latter it is outwards, the compass sweeping a wider circle. Perjury, a false oath, was all that had been forbidden. He forbids all. We may note that the forms of colloquial swearing, which our Lord specifies, are not to be taken as an exhaustive enumeration of what is forbidden. They are in the nature of a parenthesis, and the sentence runs on continuously without them — ‘Swear not at all.., but let your communication be Yea, yea; Nay, nay.’

The reason appended is equally universal, for it suggests the deep thought that ‘what is more than these,’ that is to say, any form of speech that seeks to strengthen a simple, grave asseveration by such oaths as He has just quoted, ‘cometh of evil,’ inasmuch as it springs from, and reveals, the melancholy fact that his bare word is not felt binding by a man, and is not accepted as conclusive by others. If lies were not so common, oaths would be needless. And oaths increase the evil from which they come, by confirming the notion that there is no sin in a lie unless it is sworn to.

The oaths specified are all colloquial, which were and are continually and offensively mingled with common speech in the East. Nowhere are there such habitual liars, and nowhere are there so many oaths. Every traveller there knows that, and sees how true is Christ’s filiation of the custom of swearing from the custom of falsehood. But these poisonous weeds of speech not only tended to degrade’ plain veracity in the popular mind, but were themselves parents of immoral evasions, for it was the teaching of some Rabbis, at all events, that an oath ‘by heaven’ or ‘by earth’ or ‘by Jerusalem’ or ‘by my head’ did not bind. That further relaxation of the obligation of truthfulness was grounded on the words quoted in verse 33, for, said the immoral quibblers, ‘ it is "thine oaths to the Lord" that thou "shalt perform," and for these others you may do as you like.’ Therefore our Lord insists that every oath, even these mutilated, colloquial ones which avoid His name, is in essence an appeal to God, and has no sense unless it is. To swear such a truncated oath, then, has the still further condemnation that it is certainly an irreverence, and probably a quibble, and meant to be broken. It must be fully admitted that there is little in common between such pieces of senseless profanity as these oaths, or the modern equivalents which pollute so many lips to-day, and the oath administered in a court of justice, and it may further be allowed weight that Jesus does not specifically prohibit the oath ‘by the Lord,’ but it is difficult to see how the principles on which He condemns are to be kept from touching even judicial oaths. For they, too, are administered on the ground of the false idea that they add to the obligation of veracity, and give a guarantee of truthfulness which a simple affirmation does not give. Nor can any one, who knows the perfunctory formality and indifference with which such oaths are administered and taken, and what a farce ‘kissing the book’ has become, doubt that even judicial oaths tend to weaken the popular conception of the sin of a lie and the reliance to be placed upon the simple ‘Yea, yea; Nay, nay.’