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Difficult Bible Passages: Matthew 5:39

Apr 20, 2011

In a recent discussion about an offensive work of art which some Christians took action about, one person said that turning the other cheek would be a better way to go. Admittedly Christians can debate what is the most appropriate response to something like blasphemous art in public places, but such an appeal to the words of Jesus can often be misplaced.

In Matthew 5:39 we find Jesus saying this: “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.” The appeal for believers to simply turn the other cheek in any number of situations is commonly heard. But it is important to ascertain just what exactly this verse is – and is not – saying.

The immediate context of course is Matt. 5:38-42, which in turn is part of the Sermon on the Mount. In it Jesus also speaks of going the second mile. He contrasts all this with what they had heard about an “eye for eye, and tooth for tooth”.

It seems like Jesus is making a radical break with the Old Testament principle of lex talionis, and it even seems that he is saying one can never resist evil in any form. But a closer look at this text, and other New Testament texts, makes it clear that this is not quite the case.

Can a Christian resist evil in some circumstances? Can the use of force ever be justified for the individual believer? Must one always accept insult, injury and refuse to protect or defend oneself? These questions naturally arise when looking at this passage.

Indeed, some take it even further. Some understand this text to mean that evil cannot be opposed in any way. It is not just about the use of physical force, but any kind of resistance to evil. Of course by that extreme understanding, Wilberforce, for example, was wrong – and unbiblical – to resist the evil of slavery.

Or in a bigger context, the allies were wrong to resist Hitler and the Nazis. Of course most pacifists believe exactly this. They think all resistance to all evil is out of bounds – at least in terms of using any force or violence. We are to simply endure it, not fight it.

But as we follow the important principle of comparing Scripture with Scripture, and seek to understand the full biblical revelation, it seems that we can conclude that the use of force, the place for self-defence, and even justifiable killing, are all permitted in Scripture.

I have written about these matters elsewhere. For example, when is it possible for one to kill, and do it justly? See here:
billmuehlenberg.com/2006/09/11/is-it-ever-right-to-kill/
billmuehlenberg.com/2007/03/23/were-the-early-christians-pacifists/

If we take the Bible as a whole, it is clear that governments are ordained by God to use force to resist evil (Rom. 13:1-7). Utter non-resistance to all evil is therefore not what is being called for here. Indeed, we are commanded elsewhere in Scripture to that very thing: to resist evil, as in James 4:7 and 1 Peter 5:9.

And as most commentators recognise, when Jesus is talking about turning the other cheek, he means not so much a physical attack but a personal insult. That is the real issue that needs to be focused on as we seek to interpret this passage correctly. Indeed, it seems a legal context is especially in view here. As Robert Guelich comments, this text is mainly about not seeking “legal vindication against an evil person”.

He continues, “This understanding becomes most obvious when one examines the Old Testament background of the premise. Of the three Old Testament parallels, Deut 19:21 fits 5:38-39a as though tailormade. . . . To oppose connotes legal opposition in court; an evil person refers to one’s adversary who is in the wrong.”

Indeed, it is worth looking at lex talionis a bit more. The phrase “eye for an eye…” is found in Ex. 21:24; Lev. 24:20; and Deut. 21:19. D.A. Carson explains its significance. First, it was restrictive: it “was an excellent tool for eliminating blood feuds and inter-tribal warfare.” Second, this law was given to the Jews as a nation: “The law was not designed to be discharged by individuals swept up in personal vendettas, but by the judiciary.”

So it was a legitimate principle, but was being wrongly used by the time of Jesus. As John Stott remarks, “the scribes and Pharisees evidently extended this principle of just retribution from the law courts (where it belongs) to the realm of personal relationships (where it does not belong).”

And as mentioned, the slapping and turning of cheeks seems to be mostly about being willing to put up with a personal insult. It says nothing about defending a third party from unjust aggression. Thus if you and your wife are strolling through the park, and beset by a few thugs, Jesus is not commanding you to do nothing to protect your wife.

As Craig Blomberg explains, “Striking a person on the right cheek suggests a backhanded slap from a typically right-handed aggressor and was a characteristic Jewish form of insult. Jesus tells us not to trade such insults even if it means receiving more. In no sense does v. 39 require Christians to subject themselves or others to physical danger or abuse, nor does it bear directly on the pacifism-just war debate.”

And the verse about giving your cloak as well, also speaks to a legal context. Blomberg again: “Verse 40 is clearly limited to a legal context. One must be willing to give as collateral an outer garment – more than what the law could require, which was merely an inner garment (cf. Exod 22:26-27).”

So at best these several verses refer to legal non-resistance by an individual who has received personal insult, or perhaps injury. It has nothing to do, for example, with using the law to help prevent a brothel or drug cartel opening up in your neighbourhood.

It has nothing to do with the right of the state to use force to deal with wrongdoers, both on a national and international level. And it has nothing to do with being some wimpy doormat who allows everyone to run roughshod over you.

As Craig Keener puts it, “While Jesus’ teaching cannot be conformed to the agendas of those who advocate violent revolution, no matter how just their cause, neither does it mean total passivity in the face of evil. It does not mean that an abused wife must remain in the home in the face of abuse; it does not mean that God expects people being massacred to remain instead of fleeing (compare Mt 2:13-20; 10:23). James, an advocate of peace (Jas 2:11; 3:13-18; 4:1-2), was unrestrained in his denunciation of those who oppressed the poor (Jas 5:1-6).”

A little bit of historical, cultural, theological and biblical background can help us to avoid improper and even dangerous interpretations of a passage such as this. While we don’t want to minimise the revolutionary impact of the words of Jesus here, neither do we want to turn them into something which he never intended.

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21 Responses to Difficult Bible Passages: Matthew 5:39

  • It also comes in the same sermon and in the same literary pattern as “if you hand causes you to sin, cut it off,” which no-one, except the unstable, takes literally.

    These images are hyperbole to emphasise forgiveness, not a literal command to be beat up constantly. We have to do the hard work of working out what forgiveness and reconciliation looks like in different situations, not just roll over all the time.

    What people seem to want to overlook is that forgiveness often requires gracious rebuke and correction in order that real repentance may be expressed and real forgiveness and reconciliation follow.

    Michel Hutton

  • One thing further, if I am permitted.

    The false forgiveness that is really a capitulation to the evildoer is actually not true forgiveness because it does not engage with the evildoer or his problems/sin. It is indifferent to the enemy and not loving.

    The Christian response is harder work than indifferent submission because it overcomes the hurt enough to engage with the wrongdoer graciously and works toward the goal of repentance and reconciliation.

    Michael Hutton

  • Many years ago, we heard a teaching on this (from a dear friend who has gone on to be with Jesus now) where he exposited this passage in light of protection under the blood.

    He stated that Jesus was saying that if it got to the point where someone was striking you, you really have no option but to let them strike you again. You have no protection.

    He went on to say that as Christians, we have an obligation to constantly walk under the protection of God and all he offers (angels, Holy Spirit, wisdom, etc.) and to keep our family with us in this walk. When we stray, we then open ourselves up to the world’s way of dealing with problems: violence.

    Seeing as this teaching was more than 20 years ago, and we have no method to query it again, there is probably still merit in analysing this view. My memory is very much like a colander: I need to keep pouring things in to give the appearance of it being full!

    I will state this quite openly, though. If someone comes after me or any member of my family (extended as well), they will face the full wrath of my physical abilities. I will repent later.

    Robert Wickstead

  • Thanks Michael

    Your second comment is especially very important and I support it 100%.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Thanks Robert

    Hey I am with you all the way.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • My understanding of the passage was that Jesus was encouraging people to turn the tables on those who were oppressing them and to put the aggressors into a culturally embarrassing situation. Offering the left cheek invites a left handed slap (a no-no) and offering the outer garment is a bit like when someone is ripping us off and we reply (with sarcasm) “do you want the shirt off my back as well?”

    In no way does the passage instruct us to invite harm upon ourselves, but gives us a way to disarm the aggressor without using aggression.

    Gary Morgan

  • Jesus’ comment about turning the other cheek needs to be considered in the light of him turning over tables in the temple and taking a whip to animals there and creating absolute chaos and clearly becoming very angry – and that quite publicly. Obviously “turning the other cheek” does not include sitting back and watching people trample all over that which is holy!!
    John Symons

  • Yes quite right John.
    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Hi Bill,

    Great article. I’ve been thinking about this issue a lot over the past few years (you may rememeber some of my earlier comments on previous articles, which were deicdely pacifistic in tone). I’m still wrestling with the notion of violence from a Christian perspective, coming to the (current, possibly temporary) conclusion that whilst the state – as God’s agent of justice – is legitimately able to use force to prevent injustice, Christians are called to go beyond that. Admittedly, this is somehwat vague, but both the climax of Jesus’ ministry (where he submitted to the evil of others on the cross, rather than violently overcoming them) AND eschatalogical visions of peace one finds in the OT (Isaiah 2:1-5), suggest that maybe Christians shoudl adopt this kind of attitude in all situations. However, whether that applies only to Christians’ personal lives (as opposed to public lives) is something that is “up for grabs”, so to speak. What do you think?

    A really good article, and some food for thought. The hard task of biblical and theological reflection continues!!

    Scott Buchanan

  • Thanks Scott

    Yes these are major and complex issues, and believers will differ on much of this. In response to your questions and two examples, my reply would be this:

    It would be rather foolish to take the once off and unique work of Christ at Calvary as some sort of paradigm or model for any number of social and public policy issues which Christians should imitate. That of course was not his intention. He had a specific job to do, and that involved offering himself a willing sacrifice for the sins of the world. This is not at all necessarily some template for how believers conduct their everyday affairs in a fallen world.

    Certainly the same is true of the future state. When sin and selfishness are fully put to an end, of course there will be no need for war, police, violence, force or any such thing. These things only exist and are needed in a fallen world. The state exists, as do courts, laws, police and the military to keep order in a fallen world and preserve the peace.

    Not only do we now have the God-ordained institution of the state to help fulfil these obligations, but we have permission to make use of force in self defence (eg, Exodus 22:2-3; Neh. 4; Luke 22:36).

    And you speak about the “climax of Jesus’ ministry” at Calvary. But also climactic to his overall ministry will be what takes place later, as we read about in the book of Revelation. His use of force – big time – is there spelled out in some detail.

    So if we are looking to the life of Jesus as some sort of model of how we live today in a fallen world, we would not just look at his willing submission to go to the cross, or the future state, but also at his coming in fierce judgment. And we have that use of force in his first coming as well, as in his cleansing of the temple. Real force was used there.

    I am not saying we are to necessarily emulate those sorts of actions either as believers, but if we are going to use the earthly life of Jesus as a template, then all of his activities need to be considered, not just some.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Ive been a street preacher for many years going out on my own as well as with groups at night and into some dark and dangerous places to reach souls with the Gospel. Ive had my life threatened more times than i care to remember as a Christian, than when i was selling drugs and running with the devil. Ive been assaulted for the Gospel in many different ways and im still smiling loving those who are bound by the devils that fuel their behaviour. It never ceases to amaze me how many Christians over the years have zealously contended with ‘turn the other cheek’ and ‘stand back and let them beat and kill your people’, yet they know nothing of experiencing these situations personally. It is in these times that i have faced fear that i would never wish on my worst enemy, the spirit of fear attempting to intimidate me to stop reaching the lost, restoring the backslider and reproving the religious, but i can honestly say, your doctrine will change from silly shallow understanding of perceived passivity from these scriptures, to being a warrior for Jesus that is ready to put your body on the line to resist evil when it meets you face to face. I like your article Bill, thank God for the second amendment of the USA lol
    Dorian Ballard

  • Hi Bill, this area is such a struggle for many believers including myself, but great attempt.
    This same thing must have been such a moral challenge by Bonhoeffer and other Germans as well in the days of such evil.

    Last year I read the fascinating book “Saving Zimbabwe”. It is the story of the small community of Christians who set out to demonstrate the life of Christ to the poverty stricken black tribe around them with practical help setting up agricultural projects etc. Tragically on Nov 5th 1987 sixteen of the white members including children were hacked to death by axes and the place burnt to the ground by some of those they tried to help.
    There are many difficult questions raised why the missionaries refused to try to protect themselves or even save their own lives by fleeing into the bush when it was obvious what was happening.
    Rob Withall

  • Thanks Rob

    As mentioned in the article, the turning of the other cheek seems to primarily refer to how we accept personal insults, not how we respond to threats of physical violence against ourselves or others. Christians are free to decide how they might respond, and some are willing to receive such attacks, even if it means death, while others may defend themselves, or where possible, seek police or state help.

    We need to playfully consider how we too might respond in similar circumstances. Different Christians may well come up with different responses.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Bill
    Thanks for writing on this topic. As the western countries continue to turn away from Jesus Christ, the church will begin to experience more overt persecution especially from government but specifically Islam. It is imperative to understand the Lord’s teaching on this issue. Do we resist or do we succumb willingly…Islam appears to be on a course of global domination–does the church submit to this evil and be its willing slave or resist? The western churches are totally blind to this issue. Will pastors wake up to the peril they will see in the days ahead?
    Arnie Fishman

  • I am a humble lay person and will try and add to this as humbly as I can. Firstly, I thank the author for the light he sheds on this. I am not a Christian, Tolstoy’s book on the subject led me here. My understanding is that in order to root the world of evil and to do so from its core, one must respond passively for it is the opposite that fuels the thirst for more violence or actions in the same direction. An enemy strikes expecting a violent return and derives pleasure from the upset this causes but denied the pleasure and retaliated with actions contrary to this expectation one quells the effectiveness of his actions. Similar to the way one might stop a school bully. It renders the cause and effect ineffective and the violence so heavily relied upon in causing so much pain and suffering will loose its fountain head. The sum total of this discredits the devil’s most trusted weapon and this is what I believe Christ means by turning the other cheek. I hope I’m not wrong in my thinking and practicing it will eliminate the possibility of all harm not just to me and my family but to the world as a whole.

    Ben Boye

  • Thanks Ben

    As to how we might best understand these particular words of Jesus in this passage, I have tried to explain that in the article above, so I may not be able to add too much more to that. As to your thoughts about dealing with evil and doing so from its core, the biblical position would go something like this:

    Every person is a slave to sin, and is naturally bent on gravitating toward sin and self. Solzhenitsyn put it this way:“If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”

    The Apostle Paul put it this way: “There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands; there is no one who seeks God. All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one” (Romans 3:10-12).

    That is the core problem – sin in every human heart. The real question is, what is the solution? The Christian answer is that we cannot save ourselves, we cannot free ourselves from our deep-rooted evil. Only God can step in and help deal with this serious issue. Thankfully that is why Jesus came, to deal with the sin issue. By taking the penalty for our sins upon himself, he made possible a way for reconciliation to a holy God. He did all the work, but we must make the proper response, which is to repent and place our faith in Christ and what he has done for us. That is the real answer to the problem of evil: changing an evil human heart by the power of God.

    So dealing with evil is much more than just passivity, or pacifism. It is admitting that we are the problem, and God has made a way to get us out of our dire situation. As C. S. Lewis put it, “Fallen man is not simply an imperfect creature who needs improvement: he is a rebel who must lay down his arms.”

  • Scott,

    on April 21, 2011 you wrote of Jesus: “where he submitted to the evil of others on the cross, rather than violently overcoming them.” I do not understand the “submission of Christ to be toward evil men, but rather he submitted Himself to The Father.

    “Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” Philippians 2

    Also, in the Garden He prayed, “Not my will, but Thine be done.” He did submit to the actions of evil men, like you and me, but the direction (if you will) of His submission was toward the Father, not unto the evil men. But, because of His Total commitment to The Father, He was able to pray for those evil men; “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

  • Even though it’s 7+ years late, thank you for the excellent article, Bill and everyone for the resulting discussion, especially Michael Hutton’s response. I’ve been puzzling over this passage for years, due to living in abusive relationships. I always wonder, how do I know whether to stand up for myself or just submit to the abuse? Do I “train others how to treat me” as a Christian therapist tells me, or “turn the other cheek”? Your responses have given me some insight and understanding and comfort, as I seek to be firm but kind.
    It’s a very fine line to walk, and I pray for the guidance of the Holy Spirit continually. “I Need Thee Every Hour”, oh yeah….

  • Heidi – if your safety is in danger, please get away from the abuser. Check out the domestic violence hotline at a computer the abuser can’t access (like work or the library) at the website https://www.thehotline.org/help/ or call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233).

    Also note that Jesus stood up for Himself when He was slapped by the Pharisees, He didn’t turn the cheek in that situation. (the Bible, John 18:23). You can actually help people in a way when you learn to set boundaries. They need to repent and turn from sin. The way the Israelites and the prodigal son learned to do that was by experiencing boundaries and consequences for their actions. It took me a long time to learn about boundaries. I’d recommend the book “Boundaries” by Cloud and Townsend.

  • I thank God for you helping me clearly understand this chapter in Jesus name, thank you my brother.

  • Melissa Artista, thankfully I am not in physical danger, just sometimes a lot of emotional abuse. Actually, I am reading the Boundaries book by Cloud and Townsend right now and plan to study the Bible passages they cite. Thank you for your concern and I covet your prayers for understanding the Scripture and being able to change my responses.
    In Christ,
    Heidi Whitman

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