We now turn our attention to the portion of the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus teaches us to “turn the other cheek.” Before we begin an in-depth discussion of what this means and how to properly apply it, we must be clear about what it does not mean. First, Jesus is not telling an abused wife to turn the other cheek and continue in an abusive situation. Second, He is not teaching His followers to forsake self-defense or to not defend others from abuse or bullying. Third, Jesus is not saying that the governing authorities should turn the other cheek (See Romans 13, Titus 3:1, & 1 Peter 2:13 on the role of government). So, what is Jesus is teaching? Jesus is teaching His disciples how to respond when tempted to retaliate.
Eye for an Eye
Jesus began by saying, “You have heard that it was said, An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” By referencing “eye for an eye” He was referring to the “Law of Retaliation” and how it must be understood in the life of a Christian. The Law of Retaliation is a critical component of a good and fair system of laws. In the Law of Moses (Ex 21:23-25, Lev 24:19-20, Deut 19:21), it served two principal functions: 1) It allowed for appropriate restitution for wrongs and 2) It restrained personal vendettas. It allowed for appropriate restitution because it commanded that the punishment fit the crime. It also restrained personal vendettas by giving the authority to punish to honest, impartial judges. It forbids people from taking the law into their own hands.
Cheek for Cheek
Jesus did not reject the Law of Moses or the Law of Retribution but corrected its misuse. Remember, Jesus did not come “to destroy the Law or the Prophets…but to fulfill” (Matt 5:17). Jesus does not want His disciples to appeal to the Law of Retaliation (eye for an eye) but the Law of Love (cheek for cheek). Christians must be willing to forsake retaliation for the sake of the Gospel. The Apostle Paul summarizes it well when he wrote, “Do not be conquered by evil, but conquer evil with good” (Rom 12:21). The Apostle Peter says we must not pay back “evil for evil, insult for insult but, on the contrary, giving a blessing, since you were called for this, so that you may inherit a blessing” (1 Peter 3:9). So, the question is: “Do you want to get even, or do you want to get a blessing?”
Do not be Conquered by Evil.
Christians must resist the urge to retaliate. Jesus said, “If someone slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also.” This means that if someone insults you; do not physically retaliate. Most men throughout history have been right handed. A slap on the right cheek refers to a backhanded slap. It was (and is) an insult to someone’s honor. Jesus calls His followers to not retaliate physically, but spiritually. You retaliate spiritually by turning the other cheek; you use it as an opportunity to be a witness for Christ and how He has changed your heart. Turning the other cheek is a sacrifice of your pride that testifies that you are willing to humbly suffer for the sake of Christ. Paul echoes this teaching when he wrote: “do not avenge ourselves” (Rom 12:19).
By refusing to retaliate, you leave room for God’s wrath. I know what you are most likely thinking: “But if I don’t retaliate, who will?” The testimony from Paul in Romans 12:19 is “Friends, do not avenge yourselves; instead, leave it for His wrath. For it is written: Vengeance belongs to Me; I will repay, says the Lord.” Christians do not refuse to retaliate because we are fearful, but we recognize that vengeance belongs to the Lord. Because “we know the fear of the Lord, we seek to persuade people” (2 Cor 5:11) and “we plead on Christ’s behalf, ‘Be reconciled to God’” (2 Cor 5:20). How do we do so?
Conquer Evil with Good.
Jesus gives us four examples how we are to respond. First, He says “If someone slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also.” Second, if someone “wants to sue you and take away your shirt, let him have your coat as well.” Third, “If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two.” Fourth, “Give to the one who asks you, and don’t turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.” In each of these examples, Jesus not only calls His followers to refuse to retaliate but to give a blessing. When you turn the other cheek, give your coat as well, go the second mile and allow someone to borrow, you are saying: “I love you enough to not respond in kind, but to respond in kindness. Instead of thinking “What is the appropriate retribution for this offence?” you should think, “How can I show mercy in spite of this offence?” Christians should feel the slap as an attack on our pride and bear it joyfully knowing that our pride needs to be destroyed.
How do you conquer evil with good? You must surrender your life to Jesus Christ and remember the work of Christ. Only Christ can enable you to sacrifice your pride. When someone insults you, you can resist the urge to retaliate by remembering Christ’s work on your behalf. Jesus took His own counsel. When He was standing before the High Priest, He remained silent and entrusted Himself to the Father (Matt 26:63). When He was insulted, He did not retaliate (Matt 26:67). Ask God to help you respond in faith and not in fear or anger. Remember, you can do all things through Christ who strengthens you (Phil 4:13).