April 25 – A Perspective on Non-retaliation

You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.” But I say to you, do not resist an evil person.—Matt. 5:38–39a

Christians are to “resist the devil” (James 4:7; cf. 1 Peter 5:9) and all that his evil world system stands for (Matt. 6:13; Rom. 12:9; 1 Thess. 5:22). This proves that, although Jesus refuted the Jewish leaders’ wrong teaching that people should take revenge in personal matters, our Lord did not teach that His followers simply had to tolerate all sorts of sinful misconduct and evil.

The resistance of evil and wrong, if done properly, will occur within the church. Jesus’ instruction on church discipline concludes with this command: “If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector” (Matt. 18:17; cf. 1 Tim. 5:20). A sinning member who rejects one-on-one reproof as well as reproof from two or three others and from the entire church must be excluded from the fellowship. Concerning unrepentant immorality in the church, Paul instructed—quoting the Old Testament—“Remove the wicked man from among yourselves” (1 Cor. 5:13).

In contrast to this, Jesus clarifies that His followers must not resist or take vengeance regarding supposed harm done to them personally. Such retaliation has no place in society at large, much less among Christians. Paul later wrote, “Never pay back evil for evil to anyone” (Rom. 12:17; cf. v. 19). Instead, God calls us to overcome others’ bad treatment of us by doing good to them (Rom. 12:21).

What are the main reasons for this kind of rebuke and discipline? What are its goals and objectives? When do circumstances become necessary to perform it?[1]

The Principle of Mosaic Law

You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.” (5:38)

This quotation is taken directly from the Old Testament (Ex. 21:24; Lev. 24:20; Deut. 19:21) and reflects the principle of lex talionis, one of the most ancient law codes. Simply put, it required that punishment exactly match the crime. The same idea is carried in the expressions tit for tat and quid pro quo. The earliest record of lex talionis is in the Code of Hammurabi, the great Babylonian king who lived a hundred or so years before Moses. It is likely, however, that the principle was in wide use long before that time.

In the Pentateuch an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth are part of longer lists that include “hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise” (see Ex. 21:24–25) and “fracture for fracture” (Lev. 24:20). In both the law of Moses and the Code of Hammurabi the principle of punishment to match the crime had two basic purposes. The first was to curtail further crime. When a person is punished for his wrongdoing, “the rest will hear and be afraid, and will never again do such an evil thing among you” (Deut. 19:20). The second purpose was to prevent excessive punishment based on personal vengeance and angry retaliation of the type of which Lamech boasted: “For I have killed a man for wounding me; and a boy for striking me; if Cain is avenged sevenfold, then Lamech seventy-sevenfold” (Gen. 4:23–24). Punishment was to match, but not exceed, the harm done by the offense itself.

It is of the utmost significance that each of the three Pentateuch accounts that prescribe the eye for an eye principle has to do with the civil justice system. Exodus 21–23 deals entirely with God’s provision for Israel’s civil law, as do the similar teachings in Leviticus 24 and Deuteronomy 19. Punishment was sometimes carried out by the victim, but the trial and sentencing were always the responsibility of duly appointed judges or of a large, representative body of citizens (see Ex. 21:22; Deut. 19:18; Lev. 24:14–16).

The law of an eye for an eye was a just law, because it matched punishment to offense. It was a merciful law, because it limited the innate propensity of the human heart to seek retribution beyond what an offense deserved. It was also a beneficent law, because it protected society by restraining wrongdoing.

Selfish overreaction is the natural response of sinful human nature. We are tempted to get more than just even. Anger and resentment demand the sort of retaliation Lamech glorified. Human vengeance is never satisfied with justice; it wants a pound of flesh for an ounce of offense. That is one reason why God restricts vengeance to Himself. “Vengeance is Mine, and retribution” (Deut. 32:35; cf. Rom. 12:19; Heb. 10:30).

God’s command for the individual has always been, “If your enemy is hungry, give him food to eat; and if he is thirsty, give him water to drink” (Prov. 25:21; cf. Matt. 5:44; Rom. 12:20). No individual has the right to say, “Thus I shall do to him as he has done to me; I will render to the man according to his work” (Prov. 24:29). In no instance did the Old Testament allow an individual to take the law into his own hands and apply it personally.

The Perversion of Rabbinic Tradition

Yet that is exactly what rabbinic tradition had done. Each man was permitted, in effect, to become his own judge, jury, and executioner. God’s law was turned to individual license, and civil justice was perverted to personal vengeance. Instead of properly acknowedging the law of an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth as a limit on punishment, they conveniently used it as a mandate for vengeance-as it has often been wrongly viewed throughout history.

What God gave as a restriction on civil courts,Jewish tradition had turned into personal license for revenge. In still another way, the self-centered and self-asserted “righteousness” of the scribes and Pharisees had made a shambles of God’s holy law.

The Perspective of Divine Truth

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. And if anyone wants to sue you, and take your shirt, let him have your coat also. And whoever shall force you to go one mile, go with him two. Give to him who asks of you, and do not turn away from him who wants to borrow from you. (5:39–42)

In the command do not resist him who is evil Jesus rebuts the Pharisees’ misinterpretation and forbids retaliation in personal relationships. He does not teach, as many have claimed, that no stand is to be taken against evil and that it should simply be allowed to take its course. Jesus and the apostles continually opposed evil with every means and resource. Jesus resisted the profaning of God’s Temple by making a scourge of cords and physically driving out the sacrifice sellers and moneychangers (Matt. 21:12; John 2:15). We are to “resist the devil” (James 4:7; 1 Pet. 5:9) and all the evil that he stands for and inspires (Matt. 6:13; Rom. 12:9; 1 Thess. 5:22; 2 Tim. 4:18).

A proper resisting of evil includes resisting it in the church. When Peter compromised with the Judaizers, Paul “opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned” (Gal. 2:11). When there is immorality in the congregation, God says, “Remove the wicked man from among yourselves” (1 Cor. 5:13; cf. Deut. 13:5). Jesus said that a believer who sins should first be reproved in private, and then before two or three other church members if he does not repent. “And if he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax-gatherer” (Matt. 18:15–17). Paul echoes Jesus’ teaching when he says that those in the church who continue in sin should be rebuked “in the presence of all, so that the rest also may be fearful of sinning” (1 Tim. 5:20).

That the principle of nonresistance does not apply to governmental authorities is clear from many passages in the New Testament. Civil government “is a minister of God to you for good,” Paul says. “But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath upon the one who practices evil” (Rom. 13:4). Peter commands, “Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether to a king as the one in authority, or to governors as sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and the praise of those who do right” (1 Pet. 2:13–14).

For the sake of God’s righteousness, as well as for the sake of human justice, believers are obligated not only to uphold the law themselves but to insist that others do so as well. To report crime is an act of compassion, righteousness, and godly obedience as well as an act of civil responsibility. To belittle, excuse, or hide the wrongdoing of others is not an act of love but an act of wickedness, because it undermines civil justice and divine righteousness.

As long as the natural human heart exists, evil will have to be restrained by law. Our crime-wrecked society would do well to reexamine-and reapply-biblical law. When God is forsaken, His righteous standards are forsaken, and His law is forsaken. Antinomianism, the doing away with law, is as much an enemy of the gospel as legalism and works righteousness. The Old and New Testaments are never at odds in regard to law and grace, justice and mercy. The Old Testament teaches nothing of a righteous and just God apart from a merciful and loving God, and the New Testament teaches nothing of a merciful and loving God apart from a righteous and just God. The revelation of God is unchanging in regard to moral law.

When the church stopped preaching God’s righteousness, justice, and eternal punishment of the lost, it stopped preaching the fullness of the gospel, and both society and the church have suffered greatly for it. And when the church stopped holding its own members accountable to God’s standards and stopped disciplining its own ranks, a great deal of its moral influence on society was sacrificed. One of the legacies of theological liberalism is civil as well as religious lawlessness.

Not to restrain evil is neither just nor kind. It fails to protect the innocent and has the effect of encouraging the wicked in their evil. Proper restraint of evil, however, not only is just but is beneficent as well.

Arthur Pink says,

Magistrates and judges were never ordained by God for the purpose of reforming reprobates or pampering degenerates, but to be His instruments for preserving law and order by being a terror to evil. As Romans chapter 13 says, they are to be “a revenger to execute wrath on him that doeth evil.”…Conscience has become comatose. The requirements of justice are stifled; maudlin concepts now prevail. As eternal punishment was repudiated-either tacitly or in many cases openly-ecclesiastical punishments are shelved. Churches refuse to enforce sanctions and wink at flagrant offenses. The inevitable outcome has been the breakdown of discipline in the home and the creation of ‘public opinion,’ which is mawkish and spineless. School teachers are intimidated by foolish parents and children so that the rising generation are more and more allowed to have their own way without fear of consequences. And if some judge has the courage of his convictions, and sentences a brute for maiming an old woman, there is an outcry against the judge. (An Exposition of the Sermon on the Mount [Grand Rapids: Baker, 1974], p. 112–13)

To lower God’s standard of justice is to lower God’s standard of righteousness-which Jesus came to fulfill and clarify, not to obviate or deminish.

Anthistēmi (resist) means to setontext against or oppose, and in this context obviously refers to harm done to. It personally by someone who is evil. Jesus is speaking of personall for our resentment, spite, and vengeance own is the same truth taught by Paulfor he said, “Never pay back eviten, evil to anyone. … Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the the wrath of God, for it is writeven ‘Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord” (Rom. 12:17, 19). Vengeful retaliation has no place in society at large, and even less place among those who belong to Christ. We are caledd to overcome someone’s evil toward us by doing good to them (Rom. 12:21).

After establishing the basic principle in Matthew 5:39a, in verses 39b-42 Jesus picks out four basic human rights that He uses to illustrate the principle of nonretaliation: dignity, security, liberty, and proper[2]

5:38 The law said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” (Ex. 21:24; Lev. 24:20; Deut. 19:21). This was both a command to punish and a limitation on punishment—the penalty must not exceed the crime. However, according to the OT, authority for punishment was vested in the government, not in the individual.

5:39–41 Jesus went beyond the law to a higher righteousness by abolishing retaliation altogether. He showed His disciples that, whereas revenge was once legally permissible, now non-resistance was graciously possible. Jesus instructed His followers to offer no resistance to an evil person.[3]

38 The OT prescription (Ex 21:24; Lev 24:19–20; Dt 19:21) was not given to foster vengeance; the law explicitly forbade that (Lev 19:18). Rather, it was given, as the OT context shows, to provide the nation’s judicial system with a ready formula of punishment, not least because it would decisively terminate vendettas. On occasion, payment in money or some other commodity was exacted instead (e.g., Ex 21:26–27), and in Jesus’ day the courts seldom imposed lex talionis. The trouble is that a law designed to limit retaliation and punish fairly could be appealed to as justification for vindictiveness. But it will not do to argue that Jesus is doing nothing more than combating a personal as opposed to a judicial use of the lex talionis, since in that case the examples would necessarily run differently: e.g., if someone strikes you, don’t strike back but let the judiciary administer the just return slap. The argument runs in deeper channels.

39 Jesus’ disciple is not to resist “an evil person” (tō ponērō [GK 4505] could not easily be taken to refer here to the devil or to evil in the abstract). In the context of the lex talionis, the most natural way of understanding the resistance is “do not resist in a court of law.” This interpretation is required in the second example (v. 40). As in vv. 33–37, therefore, Jesus’ teaching formally contradicts the OT law. But in the context of vv. 17–20, what Jesus is saying is reasonably clear: the OT, including the lex talionis, points forward to Jesus and his teaching. But like the OT laws permitting divorce, enacted because of the hardness of men’s hearts (19:3–12), the lex talionis was instituted to curb evil because of the hardness of men’s hearts. “God gives by concession a legal regulation as a dam against the river of violence which flows from man’s evil heart” (Piper, “Love Your Enemies,” 90).[4]

[1] MacArthur, J. (2008). Daily readings from the life of Christ (p. 124). Chicago: Moody Publishers.

[2] MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1985). Matthew (pp. 329–332). Chicago: Moody Press.

[3] MacDonald, W. (1995). Believer’s Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments. (A. Farstad, Ed.) (p. 1222). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.

[4] Carson, D. A. (2010). Matthew. In T. Longman III & D. E. Garland (Eds.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Matthew–Mark (Revised Edition) (Vol. 9, p. 189). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.


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