Matthew 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. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. …
It sounds like Jesus is changing the Old Testament law – You have heard it said .. but I say unto you. But just 11 verses earlier (Matthew 5:17) He said He didn’t come to do away with the Law but to fulfill it. So obviously He would not then proceed to “do away” with it and replace it with His own set of rules. So what is up here?
This passage makes sense when you make a simple change in emphasis in the reading. We tend to read it .. “But I say unto you..” putting the emphasis upon “I”. But it all makes perfect sense when you put the emphasis upon the “you”. “I say unto YOU ..” How can I justify such a change?
First of all, it is not a change. We have no more reason to believe the emphasis should be on one than the other. But, here is at least one reason why the emphasis clearly should be upon “you” and it makes the entire passage make sense and line up with His earlier statement that He didn’t come to do away with the law.
Remember that the OT Law was more than directions for how people should live in relationship to one another. It was intended to be the law of the land. It was how the governors of Israel, whether they be kings or judges, were to deal with God’s people. And “eye for eye” was given as a restraining order. Prior to the Law and even in many pagan cultures today, if you put out my eye, I could feel justified in killing you – or a family member. (I have been among cultures where a life could be demanded for many minor injustices or humiliation. A restraint of “eye for eye” would save a lot of bloodshed and death in these pagan cultures of today.)
So God put into the Law this restraining order and it was up to the government to ensure that if a man put out another man’s eye a blood feud of endless killings between families would not follow. Eye for eye was as far as you could go. In today’s society we often paint God’s Law as harsh but actually it put restraints on justice – eye for eye, life for life. You cannot slaughter a man’s entire family for an offense committed by the head of the family.
Clearly Jesus was not, as some claim, doing away with lex talionis (the idea that the punishment for a crime should correspond to the severity of the crime). But let’s assume that is what He meant – that a government should not demand a life for a life. Then what was He telling the government they should do instead. He went on to say, “turn the other cheek”. Do any of us honestly believe He is telling the government they should “turn the other cheek”? When a rapist or murderer is in their midst the government should just forgive, ignore it, let the killer continue. Obviously that is not what He is saying and that becomes clear when you read the passage with the emphasis upon “YOU”. He was not changing how the government should deal with offenders He was speaking to individuals.
He was not changing the duty of the government to demand justice – eye for eye, life for life. Rather he was showing how forgiven individuals should respond when they are offended. We are not to take the the government’s responsibility upon ourselves – inflicting punishment upon the offender. We are to forgive and turn the other cheek.
The government cannot turn the other cheek. As Peter later tells us, the government has a responsibility, even under this era of grace, to “punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right.” [1Peter 2:14] That is the purpose for which God established government. A government that does not “punish those who do wrong and commend those who do right” has abandoned its God assigned purpose. It would be total chaos and an abdication of their responsibility for the government to turn the other cheek to wrongdoers.
“But”, Jesus says, “I say unto YOU”, my followers, you are not to take revenge. Obviously the government must do its duty to maintain order and protect the lives and property of its citizens but YOU, as individuals who have been wronged must have a different attitude, respond differently.
There are many examples of Christian family members forgiving someone who murdered a relative. Then, with forgiveness in their heart and often expressing it at the trial, they testify at the trial that ultimately sees the murderer condemned for his crime. The individual disciple of Christ follows the Lord’s desire for them – forgiveness – and the government fulfills the purpose for which God created it – “to punish those who do wrong and commend those who do right”. Forgiveness is a heart issue but it does not always erase the consequence of the sin – the victim is still dead (a consequence of the sin) and the perpetrator still pays “life for life”.
This passage does not change in any way the responsibility the government has to “punish and commend”. It is a command given to individuals – I say to YOU. With that understanding you can see that Jesus was taking what the average Israelite saw as the law of the land and showing how it applied to the individual who is under grace – who has been forgiven of their overwhelming sin of rebellion against God.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell YOU, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. …
For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.