Retaliate Not

By Linus Chua, adapted from message delivered on 4h May 2008 in PCC Morning Worship Service

“Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: 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 cloke 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” (Matthew 5:38-42).

In this fifth contrast, Christ deals with the question of personal retaliation and revenge. Again, remember that He was not contrasting the Law of Moses with His own teaching. I cannot stress this point enough because it is so easy to think that since the phrase, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” is taken directly out of the Old Testament law, Christ was somehow contradicting or modifying or abrogating that law.

The phrase “Ye have heard that it hath been said…” indicates that Christ was not quoting directly from the Old Testament. Instead, He was referring to the oral traditions and teachings of the Rabbis and scribes, which contained many errors and misinterpretations of the Old Testament law, some of which we have already seen.

But before we consider the Rabbinical misapplication of the law, let us consider what this law originally meant and the purpose of it. In Exodus 21:24-25, we read, “Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burning for burning, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.” To this list, Leviticus 24:20 adds, “Breach for breach” that is “fracture for fracture”, and Deuteronomy 19:21 adds, “life for life.” At first reading, this law seems rather cruel and harsh, and we may be inclined to think that it has been done away with in the New Testament era. But remember that Christ did not come to abolish the Law but to confirm it in all its details.

Another thing we need to take note about this law is that it is given in very striking and dramatic language in order to make an impression on the hearers but it is not actually applied literally. In all likelihood, such phrases were used as idioms and the people in those days would have understood them as such. An idiom is basically, a group of words with a special meaning which is different from the meanings of the individual words, e.g. “it’s raining cats and dogs” or “the exam was a piece of cake” or “she was over the moon when she heard the news” etc. So too, “an eye for an eye” was probably used idiomatically in those days.

In fact, the Old Testament itself teaches that the penalties were not imposed literally. Just a few verses before the phrase “eye for eye” appears, we read in Exodus 21:18 that if a man strikes another man and injures him such that the victim has to be confined to his bed for a while,…

then the offending person has to pay for his medical expenses as well as for the loss of his time. Similarly a few verses later, the law say that if a man strikes his slave and damages his eye or knocks out his tooth, then he must let his slave go free (Exo. 21:26-27). The point to note is that the law is not applied literally.

So what does ‘eye for eye’ and ‘tooth for tooth’ really mean? The basic principle in this law is that of proportional justice, i.e. the punishment should match or fit the crime. Far from being a harsh or cruel law, it is actually a very merciful and beneficent law because firstly, it prevents excessive punishment or punishment beyond what the offense deserves, and secondly, it protects the innocent in society by restraining and deterring evildoers.

Now, when discussing what constitutes a fair or just punishment for particular crimes, the scriptures provide us with our highest authority and standard. We do not turn to natural law or to legal positivism or to the categorical imperative or to situationism or to any of the numerous ethical and legal theories devised by unbelieving thinkers through the ages. By what standard do we judge these things? No other standard than the Word of God.

Contrary to what many people think, the penalties which God’s Word prescribes for civil crimes are never cruel, unusual or excessive. Rather, they are perfectly just and they reflect God’s justice for human society. Under God’s law, a criminal receives what he deserves, no more and no less. Hebrews 2:2, referring to the Law given at Sinai, says that, “every transgression and disobedience received a just recompense of reward.”

Early in human history, we read of how Lamech, one of the wicked descendants of Cain, boasted to his wives, saying, “I have slain a man to my wounding, and a young man to my hurt. If Cain shall be avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech seventy and sevenfold (Gen. 4:23-24).” In other words, Lamech killed the young man who caused him some injury and he boasted about it. The ‘eye for eye’ principle was instituted to prevent exactly this sort of excessive punishment based on personal vengeance and angry retaliation.

And so, far from abrogating this principle, Christ confirms it (Mt 5:17-18). But what He does not confirm or approve of is the abuse of this law by the scribes and Pharisees. The eye for eye principle was given in a legal context and has to do with the civil justice system of the nation. It was part of the order of public justice instituted at Sinai and was to be used only in the civil court. The Pharisees, however, took this law out of its original context and without regard for its original intention, and used it to justify personal revenge and retaliation.

No where in the Old Testament did God ever allow His people to take matters of civil justice into their own hands and to apply it personally. Yet, that was exactly what the Pharisees had done. What God had given to the civil magistrates for the maintenance of law and order in the land, Jewish Rabbis had turned into individual license for revenge. And so in this way, God’s Holy Law has been twisted by their tradition to serve the selfish purposes of unholy men. The irony is this – that whereas the ‘eye for eye’ principle was given to prevent personal retribution, the Rabbis used that very principle to justify revenge.                       

These Jewish teachers had either totally forgotten or, more likely, totally ignored those passages in the Old Testament itself which forbade personal revenge, for example, Leviticus 19:18, “Thou shalt not avenge, nor bear any grudge against the children of thy people, but thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself: I am the LORD.” And again in Proverbs 20:22, “Say not thou, I will recompense evil: but wait on the LORD, and he shall save thee.”

The next time someone hurts you or offends you in some way, never turn to the “eye for eye and tooth for tooth” principle as an excuse to hit back or to get even with that person. If you do, you will be guilty of misapplying and breaking God’s law, just like the Jews of old.

Now with this background in mind, we can then look at the words of Christ from verse 39 onwards, “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 cloke 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.”

When Christ tells us not to resist evil, He is speaking in the context of harm that is done to us personally by someone who is evil, and teaching us not to respond with personal resentment, spite, and vengeance. Unfortunately, there are some who have misinterpreted this passage to mean that any resistance whatsoever to evil is forbidden. John MacArthur wrote, “Probably no part of the Sermon on the Mount has been so misinterpreted and misapplied as 5:38-43…It has been used to promote pacifism, conscientious objection to military service, lawlessness, anarchy and a host of other positions that it does not support.”[1]

These people, like the Rabbis of old who misused the words of Moses, have misused the words of Christ to teach non-resistance in all circumstances. Let us be clear that God’s Word, both in the Old and New Testament, does not forbid such things as self-defense, military service, civil justice and the punishment of crime. In fact, both Paul and Peter tell us that the government is ordained by God as His instrument to punish and restrain evil, and to protect the people, and to maintain order in society (Rom. 13:1-4, 1 Peter 2:13-14).     

Four Illustrations

So having established the basic principle of non-retaliation in the area of personal relationships, the Lord illustrates this principle with four examples. Firstly, in verse 39, He says when a person slaps you on your right cheek, you should turn to him the other also, which literally means you should let him slap the left cheek as well. In Jewish culture, a slap in the face was one of the most insulting and demeaning of actions. Slapping a person represented a very serious attack on one’s honour and dignity. Even a slave would prefer to be whipped than to be slapped in the face by his master’s hand.

And so being slapped in the face, whether literally or figuratively, is to suffer a great insult and to be treated with great contempt and disdain. The most natural response to such an action would be to slap back, but Christ tells us to turn to him the other also. This turning of the other cheek symbolizes a non-revengeful and non-retaliatory spirit. We see a wonderful example of this in Christ Himself. When He saw His Father’s house being defiled by the money changers and sellers, He did not hesitate to resist them by driving them out by force. But when He Himself was insulted, He did not respond by personal vengeance.


Peter says, “but if, when ye do well, and suffer for it, ye take it patiently, this is acceptable with God. For even hereunto were ye called: because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that ye should follow his steps: Who did no sin, neither was guile found in his mouth: Who, when he was reviled, reviled not again; when he suffered, he threatened not; but committed himself to him that judgeth righteously (1 Peter 2:20-23).”

And so when someone attacks our dignity or insults us, we too are not to respond by retaliation. Rather, we are to leave the protection and defense of our dignity in the hands of God.

The second illustration that Christ gives is found in verse 40, “if anyone wants to sue you and take away your coat, let him have your cloak also.” The coat refers to an inner shirt while the cloak refers to an outer garment which could also serve as a blanket at night. According to Exodus 22:26, this outer garment was seen as being so indispensable that if it was used as a pledge, it had to be returned to the person before sunset.

In those days, the court could require a person, who had no money or other possessions, to pay the fine with his clothing with the exception of the cloak or the outer garment, which was considered an inalienable or untouchable possession. Christ tells us that when someone wants to deprive us of our possessions through legal means, not only should we refrain from taking revenge on him, but we should even be willing to part with what we may legally keep. 

Now this of course does not mean that Christians may never contest their case in court or appeal to the judge against an injustice done to us. Remember how Paul and Silas protested to the magistrates in Acts 16 after they had been illegally beaten and thrown into prison at Philippi. The reason why they made that appeal was probably so that the magistrates would be made to realize that what they had done to them was illegal and a violation of their own law.

But notice that we do not find in Paul and Silas a spirit of anger and bitterness, and a desire for personal revenge. When the attack is made against our own person and even our own possessions, we should be willing to suffer loss, but when the attack is made on truth, justice and righteousness, we should be willing to go to its defense.

The third illustration has to do with going the extra mile. In verse 41, the Lord says, “whoever compels you to go one mile, go with him two.” Christ was probably thinking about the Roman law which allowed Roman soldiers to command and to compel civilians to carry their equipment for them up to a distance of one mile. For the Jews, this was not only a great inconvenience but it was also a great insult to have to carry the equipment and weapons of their oppressors. Yet Christ taught His disciples to be willing to carry this despised burden an even greater distance than what was legally required. The point is that when we are oppressed, we should be willing to surrender more of our liberties and rights than retaliate or be bitter about it.

The fourth illustration, found in verse 42, says that we should give to him that asks and not to withhold from him who wants to borrow. We should not turn a deaf ear to a needy person asking for assistance. Instead, we should give generously and not seek anything in return.

John Murray sums up this section well when he says, “The sum of the passage (Matt. 5:38-42) can be stated negatively and positively. Negatively, when subjected to wrongs of various kinds, when our rights are infringed upon and our liberties invaded, let us not be animated and our conduct dictated by vindictive resentment. Positively, let us be generous and forbearing even to those who inflict wrong.”[2]

The Apostle Paul gives an inspired exposition of our Lord’s words in Romans 12:17-20, “Recompense to no man evil for evil. Provide things honest in the sight of all men. If it be possible, as much as lieth in you, live peaceably with all men. Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, butrather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord. Therefore if thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink: for in so doing thou shalt heap coals of fire on his head.”