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Matthew Verse 5:38-42 – “Turn the Other Cheek”

I. Matthew 5:38-42 – "Turn The Other Cheek"

The Path of Non-Resistance

Christian pacifists believe it is always wrong to injure other humans, no matter what the circumstances. And the same principles supporting pacifism carry over to nonresistance–the belief that any form of self-defense is wrong. This view is usually on the exemplary life and teachings of Jesus Christ.

According to Christian pacifist John Yoder, Jesus rejected the existing political state of affairs and taught a form of radical nonviolence. Central to Christ’s teaching, Yoder says, is His biblical mandate to "turn the other cheek" when encountering violence (Matthew 5:38-48).

In Yoder’s view, the way to victorious living is to refrain from the game of sociopolitical control. Jesus exposed the futility of the violence engrafted in the present world system by resisting its inclinations even to the point of death. Hence, Christians are to refuse the world’s violent methods and follow their Savior to the cross (Matthew 26:47-52). When Jesus told the disciples to buy a sword (Luke 22:36), pacifists suggest He was only speaking figuratively.

"TURN THE OTHER CHEEK" ALWAYS? It is true that Jesus said to turn the other cheek in Matthew 5:38-42. However, many scholars do not believe pacifism (or nonresistance) is the essential point of His teaching in this passage. These scholars do not believe Jesus was teaching to "turn the other cheek" in virtually all circumstances. Even Christ did not literally turn the other cheek when smitten by a member of the Sanhedrin (see John 18:22-23).

The backdrop to this teaching is that the Jews considered it an insult to be hit in the face, much in the same way that we would interpret someone spitting in our face. Bible scholar R. C. Sproul comments: "What’s interesting in the expression is that Jesus specifically mentions the right side of the face [Matthew 5:39]….If I hit you on your right cheek, the most normal way would be if I did it with the back of my right hand….To the best of our knowledge of the Hebrew language, that expression is a Jewish idiom that describes an insult, similar to the way challenges to duels in the days of King Arthur were made by a backhand slap to the right cheek of your opponent."

The principle taught in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5:38-42 would thus seem to be that Christians should not retaliate when insulted or slandered (see also Romans 12:17-21). Such insults do not threaten a Christian’s personal safety. The question of rendering insult for insult, however, is a far cry from defending oneself against a mugger or a rapist.

In terms of following Christ’s example, one must remember that His personal nonresistance at the cross was intertwined with His unique calling. He did not evade His arrest because it was God’s will for Him to fulfill His prophetic role as the redemptive Lamb of God (Matthew 26:52-56). During His ministry, however, He refused to be arrested because God’s timing for His death had not yet come (John 8:59). Thus, Christ’s unique nonresistance during the Passion does not mandate against self-protection.

II. Here is another article on Matthew 5:38-42:

By George Crocker

There seems to be a lot of confusion in Christian circles regarding our Lord’s statement in Matthew 5:39: "But I tell you not to resist an evil person. But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also." (New King James Version. Emphasis mine). Many take this verse and claim that it is not right nor lawful for a Christian to defend himself or herself but rather one ought to be passive. At first appearance it seems that they may be right. This sure seems like Christ is teaching pacifism. Yet, is this really so?.

Its the Context

The context of this passage is the Sermon on the Mount where our Lord is teaching proper Christian conduct amidst an unbelieving world and hypocritical religious leaders. The scribes and the Pharisees were taking passages of Scripture in the Old Testament (that was all the Scriptures they had at the time) out of context That is why Christ constantly began His words with: "You have heard that it was said…". He was correcting the errors of their teaching and thinking. The scribes and Pharisees were famous for saying "do and do not" (Matt. 23:3).

In the context of Matthew 5:38-39 (as well as Luke 6:29) our Lord is correcting yet another error by these religious leaders. In verse 38 He says: "You have heard that it was said: ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’." The religious leaders, the scribes and Pharisees, were taking what God had instructed in His law (Ex. 21:24; Deut. 19:21; Lev. 24:20) for the civil government and made it a private and inpidual matter. The Lord God had instructed the judges and magistrates to punish those who had done injuries by making them suffer the way they made their victims suffer. The scribes and Pharisees taught that this meant private or inpidual revenge. This was not correct. The inpidual has not been given the right for revenge. That is in the hands of God (see Deut. 32:35; Romans 12:19) and His "means" of punishment through the civil magistrates (Rom. 13:4). Christ challenges this contrary teaching by saying "But I tell you…"

In verse 39 Christ now instructs them that it is the duty of every man to bear patiently the injuries that he receives (Calvin) and not to seek revenge. It is my conviction that the Lord is NOT referring to the matter of "self defense" in this context. He is NOT saying here that it is sinful for one to defend himself and/or his family when being threatened. If He were then this would be a contradiction to what Scripture says elsewhere (see below and also Pratt’s article: "What Does the Bible Say about Gun Control?"). This is where I part with some conservative and Reformed commentators (such as Ridderbos) who imply that one must resist "even defending himself" . If they mean that in all instances this ought to be the case then they are wrong. Again, the Lord does not allow for "revengence" by the inpidual. However, defending himself or his family is certainly not forbidden.

If this text is not speaking about self defense, what does the Lord mean when He says "not to resist an evil person" and then adds "But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also"? Admittedly this appears to be a pacifist text. H.N. Ridderbos does help us out in this area when he says:

Jesus specifically mentions the right here , even though a blow from a right-handed person would normally fall on the left cheek. This probably means that the blow is delivered with the back of the hand, since then it would indeed fall on the right cheek. We know for certain that such a blow was considered particularly insulting. The injustice that is willingly accepted here is therefore not so much a matter of body injury as of shame. (H.N. Ridderbos. "Matthew": Bible Students Commentary. Zondervan. p. 113)

At a closer look this passage deals with how one must respond after being insulted. This is not a passage dealing with what one must do when being physically attacked and having one’s life being threatened. It is, however, one that reinforces the idea that "revenge" is not to be left in the hands of the inpidual victim. Personal revenge and even "lynch-law" is certainly out of the question. The Lord has already set up the means to deal with punishing the offender by the sword of the state. It is a passage that teaches one must have patience when wronged. As the great Reformer John Calvin says:

When wrong has been done them (believers) in a single instance, he (Christ) wishes them to be trained by this example to meek submission, that by suffering they may learn to be patient. (John Calvin. "Harmony of Matthew, Mark and Luke" Calvin’s Commentaries. Baker. p. 299)

Do these passages forbid self-defense? They do not deal with it nor do they forbid it.

III. Below are what several commentaries say about "Turning The Other Cheek."

The College Press NIV Commentary States:

To be slapped on the right cheek would be interpreted more as an insulting act of contempt than a violent physical attack (cf. 26:67). The tendency would be to respond to such demeaning and abusive behavior by striking back. Remarkably, the course of action Jesus demands is one that exposes the disciple to even further abuse. Jesus’ words are illustrative of the extreme measures to which one would go not to respond to hurting insults with a vindictive and vengeful spirit. While “turning the other cheek” stands in deliberate tension with the way one normally thinks and lives, it illustrates a powerful principle that must be taken seriously when we encounter similar situations. Even when wrongfully abused, our course of action must always be governed by the higher principles of the kingdom, not the mere satisfaction of personal rights.

5:40. Next, Jesus envisions a scenario where legal action has resulted in the loss of one’s inner garment (χιτών, chitōn, “tunic, shirt, a garment worn next to the skin,” BAGD, p. 882). Rather than taking action to recover the garment, Jesus instructs his disciples to be willing to give up the outer, more important garment (ἱματιον, himation, cf. Luke 6:29). Legally, one was required to return another’s outer garment by sunset since it was necessary to protect one from the cold of the night (Exod 22:26–27; Deut 24:12–13). However, in the kingdom, higher principles sometimes supersede our personal and legal rights. Paul seems to allude to this principle in his effort to preserve Christian community and witness among the Corinthian Christians (1 Cor 6:7).

Larry Chouinard, Matthew, The College Press NIV commentary (Joplin, Mo.: College Press, 1997), Mt 5:39.

Matthew: A Bible Commentary in the Wesleyan Tradition

JESUS AND RETALIATION 5:38–42

The fifth antithesis addresses the subject of retaliation. Jesus quotes a common Old Testament saying: Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth (5:38). These words appear in Exodus 21:24; Leviticus 24:20; and Deuteronomy 19:21. Though most modern people hear these words expressing the right for revenge, in their Old Testament context they served to limit the amount of retaliation a person could seek.

In contrast, Jesus instructs His followers to not seek to repay evil with evil. This is the meaning of the phrase Do not resist an evil person (Matt. 5:39). The point is not to stand idly by while evil runs rampant. Rather, one should not retaliate in kind to mistreatment (see Rom. 12:17–21). Christ then gives four examples of this new pattern of living. The first instructs us to turn the other cheek to someone who strikes you on the right cheek. A blow to the right cheek would be given with the back of the hand. Back-handed slaps were expressions of contempt wounding one’s pride more severely than one’s cheek. Jesus’ instruction is to let the insult go and cheerfully prepare for another.

Roger L. Hahn, Matthew: A Commentary for Bible Students (Indianapolis, IN: Wesleyan Publishing House, 2007), 93.

The New American Commentary: Matthew

5:38–42 Jesus next alludes to Exod 21:24 and Deut 19:21. Again he formally abrogates an Old Testament command in order to intensify and internalize its application. This law originally prohibited the formal exaction of an overly severe punishment that did not fit a crime as well as informal, self-appointed vigilante action. Now Jesus teaches the principle that Christian kindness should transcend even straightforward tit-for-tat retribution. None of the commands of vv. 39–42 can easily be considered absolute; all must be read against the historical background of first-century Judaism. Nevertheless, in light of prevailing ethical thought Jesus contrasts radically with most others of his day in stressing the need to decisively break the natural chain of evil action and reaction that characterizes human relationships.

Antistēnai (“resist”) in v. 39 was often used in a legal context (cf. Isa 50:8) and in light of v. 40 is probably to be taken that way here. Jesus’ teaching then parallels 1 Cor 6:7 against not taking fellow believers to court, though it could be translated somewhat more broadly as “do not take revenge on someone who wrongs you” (GNB). We must nevertheless definitely resist evil in certain contexts (cf. Jas 4:7; 1 Pet 5:9). 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. 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).

Craig Blomberg, vol. 22, Matthew, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2001, c1992), 113.

© 2010 – 2011, Matt. All rights reserved.

2 Responses

  1. Jonathan Epstein says:

    I am so pleased to have stumbled upon this site and this thread in particular. Very good analysis of the bible & Jesus teaching regarding self-defense. Thank you. Refreshing!

  2. PhileoTruth says:

    I agree with the comments of Mr. Epstein. I am glad to hear a defense of self-defense for Christians. Too often have I been falsely guilted into taking abuse and not defending myself as I ought because pacifism was equated with Christianity. Consequently, I suffered (and do suffer) losses that were at my expense as my opponents exploited my misunderstanding of the Christian’s responsibility to defend. I was taught wrong and given false impressions and guilted into believing myself somehow unloving or less than a Christian for rightly standing up for myself. Ironically, it seemed appropriate to defend others but not myself. (For no one has ever guilted me for defending someone else.)

    Thank you for bringing light to this matter. Pacifism is not Christianity, nor does Christianity mandate pacifism at all costs.

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