The scripture contained in Matt 5:38-48 seems to be telling us to do the impossible, and these verses have bothered a lot of Christians over the years. Are these verses telling us to really do all of these things? Are we really to always turn the other cheek, for example? Yes and no. This is part of the Sermon on the Mount by Jesus Christ, and all of this sermon has to be carefully interpreted. So before studying these particular Scripture verses, let's talk a little about interpretation.
It is important to remember that the Sermon is not a code of ethics, it is not a set of rules for our conduct, it is not a new kind of law designed to replace the Mosaic law. It is a means of emphasizing the spirit of the law. The most important point about this sermon is that it is a set of principles. Christians live by a set of life principles, not a set of laws, and this sermon has a number of those principles for us to understand. An excellent Bible study method is to read for principles, and then to write your own book of those principles.
Also in our interpretation of Scripture we must always remember that no Scripture contradicts other Scripture. So when studying a principle, or any subject, gather all the Scripture verses together that relate to that subject to help understand the topic. It must also be remembered that God never asks us to do the impossible, meaning that He never will give us tasks that will only frustrate us and leave us feeling like a failure. God can do the seemingly impossible, and sometimes (most of the time?) He asks us to do things that we can only do with His help. But He will never put an impossible task before us without His clear guidance on what to do.
The lifting of Scripture out of its context and making something out of it that God never intended is demonstrated in the work of Tolstoy. He took the "resist not evil" out of Matt 5:39 and determined that we must therefore not have soldiers, police, or judges and courts. Other people have taken this verse and tried to build a case of a totally passive life style. These applications are totally out of context and in contradiction to other Scripture. For example, read Romans 13:1-7 (especially verse 4) which talks of the government resisting evil. Always remember context and connection. The context of the verse and the connection of the verse to other Scripture must never be violated.
For interpreting this sermon we must also remember that these teachings are not for the world, these are for Christians. That this sermon is for Christians only is clear from the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount with the proper understanding of The Beatitudes. Christian teachings are impossible for a non-Christian to obey or even to understand. All of the teachings in this sermon have to do with a Christian and his personal reaction to events occurring to him. Also the main point of the principles in these verses is that we must become dead to self. The principles presented by Jesus have to do with our attitude toward ourselves. The Adam nature continues to surface and we must continually deal with it (Matt 16:24).
With that background, now let's look in some detail at these verses.
Matt 5:38 "You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.'
The Old Testament origin of this verse is found in Ex 21:24, Lev 24:19-20, and Deut 19:21. It is extremely important to note that these OT verses are part of the civil code, not the moral code. So these verses are instructions to judges. These instructions made the judicial responses appropriate to the degree of the crime. These instructions are also meant to limit the sentencing of the judges. The judges did not have to go that far in restitution, but they could go no farther. Thus someone was not to be executed for punching someone else in the nose. The punishment portion of the U.S. legal system is based upon similar types of correlations for the offenses.
However the Pharisees quoted this law as their reason for taking personal revenge. They seemed to ignore Lev 19:18 which says:"Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your people, but love your neighbor as yourself." Of course, they also took the "your people" and "your neighbor" to only be one of their own kind. Remember the question to Jesus about "who is my neighbor"? Our natural response is indeed to seek revenge, but
Matt 5:39 "But I say to you, do not resist him who is evil; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn to him the other also."
we are not to resist evil, which means do not take personal revenge. We are to leave justice to the earthly courts and ultimately to the Heavenly Court. Rom 12:19 tells us never to take our own revenge, "but leave room for the wrath of God". Rom 12:17 even tells us to never pay back evil for evil.
But you also see that Jesus went deeper than justice. If this discussion were just about justice, He would not have added the portion about turning the other cheek. Certainly our turning the other cheek is not related to justice on the offender. The slapping as described is more of an insult than a physical abuse. Jesus is telling us to endure even more insults by allowing the person to insult us again. Ezek 36:26-27 says that a day will come when some people are given a new heart, and it is from that heart that the responses of the people should come.
But this is not a crook assaulting us, or someone abusing someone else, or an evil nation oppressing another nation, or whatever else you can remember or imagine happening in an evil context. There are times when we should personally resist evil to help other people. And as we saw earlier in Romans, God has provided a government to respond to evil actions. But remember that Jesus is teaching here a principle of what our heart response should be to personal insults. We read in John 18:22-23 where Jesus rebuked the officer who struck Him. Here Jesus did not turn the other cheek, but this was not a self reaction by Jesus. Jesus did not lose His temper and strike back. He rebuked the breaking of the law, for only the evil are to be punished (Rom 13:1-7). So this verse does not mean that we always turn our cheek, and we do not never resist evil. It does mean that we do not seek personal revenge and we do not let personal insults dictate Adamic responses.
Matt 5:40 "And if any one wants to sue you, and take your shirt, let him have your coat also."
Under Mosaic law, the outer coat was a possession that others could not demand (Exek 22:26; Deut 24:13). But again here we must pay attention to the principle. Jesus is saying that we must not insist upon our legal rights even if we sometimes suffer injustice. Our rights, the self emphasis, is the subject of this principle.
In Acts 16:37 we read where Paul was concerned about the law, not even complaining about being thrown into prison, and he corrected the people to act according to the law. The Christian is not to be concerned about personal insults which just affect our ego. We are to be concerned about honor, justice for the mistreated, righteousness, and truth; and, against such we certainly may protest.
Matt 5:41 "And whoever shall force you to go one mile, go with him two."
Here we are again concerned with the principle. This verse has to do with our dislike and resentment of legislation of which we do not approve. By Roman law, a Roman soldier could ask someone to take his gear for one mile. The Jews hated this law for they viewed it as very demeaning, they took personal affront at being made to carry the gear of their enemy. This was a huge personal affront to them. Rom 13:6-7 tells us that we are to pay taxes, honor those who should be honored, fear those who should be feared, and give custom to those to whom custom is due. We are to obey the laws of our country, and to do so with a smile upon our face. We might even volunteer to take the gear an extra mile to make sure that we are not overly concerned about the importance of ourselves. We may because of honor for others, justice for others, etc. work to get the laws changed. The point again is that we must die to self.
These Christian reactions not only emphasize to us the dying of ourselves but also cause the people to wonder about us, and maybe ask us some important questions about our loving behavior towards those who mistreat us.
Matt 5:42 "Give to him who asks of you, and do not turn away from him who wants to borrow from you."
This verse does not say to give to anyone whatever they ask. Jesus is concerned here with the self centered principle of hoarding what is mine for me. We must be willing to listen spiritually to the requests and then to see how we can help the people brought into our presence. 1John 3:17,18 says "But whoever has the world's goods, and beholds his brother in need and closes his heart against him, how does the love of God abide in him? Little children, let us not love with word or with tongue, but in deed and truth." Jesus also taught in Matt 25: 31-46 about how giving to others is giving to Him. Things must not have us. Again the principle is about our attitude toward self. Holiness is a life to be lived in detail.
"You shall love your neighbor" is a quote from Lev 19:18, but the OT does not say to hate your enemy; however, that is what was taught by the Pharisees. They also said that neighbor here meant an Israelite, so that Jews were only to love Jews. They wanted an elite religion with them as the authority. Jesus says that we are to love and pray (vs 44) for our enemies. Note however in Matt 23:13-36 how Jesus thundered out woes on the Pharisees. Does this action of Jesus violate His own statement about loving your enemies? No, Jesus is God and only God can merit out true judgement.
We are to love everyone regardless of what they do to or for us which is directly opposite to normal human behavior. Our lives are so much governed by other people and what they do to us and think about us, and by our involvement with the satisfaction of self. However we must die to self.
Sometimes we just think of some people and we get upset. Why? Because they violated our self. We must die to self. Our life must be governed by a love that only comes from God toward others. This is the love that sent Jesus to die for us while we were still sinners.
In Matt 16:23 we read where Peter was saying something wrong to Jesus and Jesus turned and addressed Satan, telling Satan to get behind Him. We too must learn to identify the true ultimate cause of disorder. We must love the people, but know that what they do is wrong. What to do? Pray for them. Among the benefits of prayer is the fact that praying for people helps change our attitude toward them.
Matt 5:45 "in order that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous."
Does Jesus here mean that by our actions we earn our salvation? Of course not, for that would violate many Scripture verses. That we may be the sons means that our actions show that we are truly sons of the Father. The actions according to these principles works out our salvation to help us become here what we already are to the Father. God in His "common grace" pours His temporary blessings (rain and sun) on everyone, but His wrath will pour forth on the lost. For now everyone will receive His sun and rain which helps the world be a tolerable place for His people.
Matt 5:46-48 "For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax-gatherers do the same? And if you greet your brothers only, what do you do more than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Therefore, you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect."
If our love only goes out to those who love us then we do not have the love of God in our heart. God demands that we allow His perfection to show through. Again this is only for God's children. Only His children have Him as Father (John 1:12). 1Peter 1:13-19 also exhorts us to be holy like the one who called us. Perfection is the goal of the Christian. This perfection is worked out through the principles taught us by Jesus.
Being perfect is, of course, impossible for us alone. For the non-Christian, being perfect is not even a concept entertained since the perfection is measured relative to the perfection of God. However, the impossible is easy for Him. Matt 19:26 says "And looking upon them Jesus said to them, 'With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.'" Luke 1:37 says "For nothing will be impossible with God." Luke 18:27 says "But He said, 'The things impossible with men are possible with God'." So we serve the perfect God for whom nothing is impossible. And through Him we can do all things, but without Him we can do nothing (John 15:4,5). Thus the perfection command is worked out through the principles taught us by Jesus and by the power of God. Isn't this great news? I heard a theologian say that "you can't really understand the good news until you understand the bad news". That is so true. The Beatitudes speaks to those of us who understand the bad news and the good news. We understand the bad news that we are bankrupt before the almighty, holy God. We understand the good news that God has provided the means for us through Jesus Christ to be Holy with Him. Then once we understand that good news, God teaches us through the Bible much more good news such as we have seen in this study. The Christian life is truly an exciting, fun-filled life as we continue the process that God started. I can hardly wait to learn more. But we must remember that we are accountable for what we know! All of this must be worked out, in detail, in our daily walk. That is our homework assignment! A test will follow! Accountability will follow!
Web Author: Dr. Leon L. Combs
Copyright ©2000 by Dr. Leon L. Combs - ALL RIGHTS RESERVED