The following is a sermon delivered on the Lord’s Day, May 3, 2020, at First Southern Baptist Church in Junction City, KS. The text was from Matthew 5:38-42 on the subject of retaliation.
38 “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 the one who is evil. 39 But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also 40 And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. 41 And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. 42 Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.”
In this short passage, you may have noticed two very common Christian sayings: “Turn the other cheek,” and “Go the extra mile.” I had thought about titling the sermon today, “Turn the other cheek.” But that was before I realized that Jesus is telling us here to do more than turn the other cheek. After all, you have sinned against God, and He didn’t merely turn the other cheek. He gave His Son, Jesus, as a sacrifice for sins. Let us worship God and praise Him all the more for the gospel of Christ as we consider His word this morning.
Here Jesus gives to us the fourth of five “You have heard that it was said” statements The first was in verse 21, then verse 27, last week in verse 33, and next week we’ll look at the last one in verse 43. Look now at verse 38: “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 the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.”
An eye for an eye is in the Law of God, and it is a just Law. In no way is Jesus overthrowing the Law of just measures, though many have assumed that’s exactly what Jesus is doing here. There’s a famous quote attributed to Gandhi, who said, “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.” It turns out Gandhi did not say this, but his biographer Louis Fischer, who believed from Gandhi’s teaching that Jesus actually thought “an eye for an eye” was unjust. But that’s not what Jesus was saying here at all.
The purpose of the Law here is very simple—the punishment must fit the crime. The law of just or equal measures was to prevent excessive punishment or favoring one social class over another. Jesus is not altering this law in any way. It is God’s law. It is a just law, intended for civic use to be imposed by civil authorities. But the Pharisees were applying it to personal matters, and that’s what Jesus was rebuking here. Jesus was not overthrowing the death penalty, nor was He saying police officers can’t use force, nor was He saying you can’t be a soldier, nor was he saying a nation can never go to war against another nation, all things that have been repudiated by those who twist and abuse the word of Christ here in Matthew 5:38-42.
We are called to be a just people, and doing justice means punishing those who do evil. Psalm 106:3 says, “Blessed are they who observe justice, who do righteousness at all times.” Proverbs 28:5 says, “Evil men do not understand justice, but those who seek the Lord understand it completely.”
Isaiah 1:17 says, “Learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause.” In verse 23, you see this is being spoken to a people who are not doing justice: “Your princes are rebels and companions of thieves. Everyone loves a bribe and runs after gifts. They do not bring justice to the fatherless, and the widow’s cause does not come to them.”
When people read Matthew 5:38, and they think that Jesus is overthrowing the Law of God, then they are not listening to the God of justice. Rather, they pervert justice. They make the same mistakes that the pharisees were making, who claimed Jesus was speaking contrary to the Law of God. The most common interpretation of Matthew 5:38 is to say that Jesus is abolishing “an eye for an eye.”
Desmond Tutu, a South African Anglican Cleric, said, “In the sentiment of Mahatma Gandhi, when we practice the law of an eye for an eye, we all end up blind.” Red Letter Christian author Shane Claiborne used this passage in favor of abolishing the death penalty: “You’ve heard it said, ‘an eye for an eye,’ but I tell you there is another way.” This comes from Christians who claim that they love Jesus and they love the Sermon on the Mount. How can someone who loves the Sermon on the Mount get their interpretation so very wrong?
It was this time a year ago that Rachel Held Evans died, May 4, 2019. Her death was very tragic. She got so sick she had to be admitted to the hospital, and then had an allergic reaction to medication. She went into a coma from which she never woke up. Evans and I were just a few months apart in age. She had a husband and two young children. But what was the most tragic about her death is that she died not knowing the Lord—in fact, she hated the Jesus of the Bible. She and I had similar backgrounds, but while I grew to love the word of God, she came to hate it.
Evans was an anti-fundamentalist. That’s really the best way to contextualize her beliefs. Her entire shtick was to fight against the Christianity she believed had oppressed her in her youth. She brought up her fundamentalist background all the time as the experience that validated every argument she raised against Christianity. If historic orthodox Christianity was for it, she was against it. By the time she died, she was pro-gay, pro letting little boys become little girls, she would refer to God as a woman, she expressed doubt that He even existed at all, and she was against just about anything the Bible said was true.
Yet Evans repeatedly said that she loved the Sermon on the Mount. How could someone who hated the Bible as much as she did love Jesus’s most famous and hard-hitting sermon? In one comment, she said, “I love it when you go to the Sermon on the Mount to prove a point and then Jesus turns around and convicts the hell out of you.” She also said, “The minute I go to the Sermon on the Mount to mine it for proof texts, I’m hit with a familiar wave of conviction.” She said, “I think Jesus meant that stuff in the Sermon on the Mount, and I hope to follow those teachings myself.” Finally, she said: “I don’t think I heard a sermon on the Sermon on the Mount until I left evangelicalism in my early 30s. It just wasn’t talked about.”
Those last two comments are really the most damning. She did not follow these teachings, and there are boat loads of sermons on the Sermon on the Mount. When we started our series, I held up to you this book—Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Studies in the Sermon On the Mount. Other theological giants like John Piper and John MacArthur (both of whom Evans loathed), also Albert Mohler and Sinclair Ferguson—these guys have taught verse by verse through the Sermon on the Mount. There’s no excuse for saying in an internet age, “I never heard a sermon on the Sermon on the mount.” It’s not that Evans had not heard a sermon on the Sermon on the Mount—she just didn’t want to.
Yet she expressed such love for it, and many other creatures who hate the Bible will likewise express a sort of reverence for the Sermon on the Mount. Why is that? I think there are two possible reasons for this, and one or both reasons may apply.
The first reason is tokenism. What do I mean by tokenism? It’s when you take a person, a way of thinking, or some kind of popular idea—in this case, the Sermon On the Mount—and you express admiration to impress people, or qualify yourself, or give the appearance of being virtuous. If you wear a cross around your neck, and that’s the most meaningful expression of your faith that you can make, that would be about the most literal example of tokenism.
You can probably think of many other examples of this. People do this with Jesus all the time. Even pagans say they love Jesus and they don’t even know Him. Gandhi said he loved Jesus—no, he didn’t. He loved his own version of Jesus, but not the Jesus of the Bible.
In our own denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention, the word “Gospel” gets tokenized all the time. I hate hearing the way the word “Gospel” gets thrown around among Southern Baptists, as if we can validate doing anything as long as we attach the word “Gospel” to it. Our upcoming convention in June, which has been cancelled, was going to be titled “Gospel.” Yet there was a lot going on leading up to the convention that was contrary to the “Gospel.” (I won’t go into all of that here. I’ve written about it on my blog if you want to know more.)
So much false teaching has made its way into the church branded with tokenism. If it’s got a cross on it, then it must be good. And people also do this with the Sermon on the Mount. To make themselves look like a genuine Jesus-follower, they will express their love for this sermon when the reality is that they’re probably more like the pharisees than they are disciples of Jesus. They twist the word; they don’t love the word.
A second reason that a person who hates the Bible may express love for the Sermon on the Mount is because they read Jesus’s sermon apart from the context of the Old Testament. For this person, Matthew chapter 5 is Genesis chapter 1. They read the Sermon on the Mount in a vacuum, as if nothing came before it, nothing comes after it, and so it becomes a sermon full of philosophical sayings they will use to qualify whatever worldview they have.
I want you to be aware of this so you will neither do it nor will you fall for it. A teacher may say they love Jesus, or they love the Sermon on the Mount, but how do they treat the rest of the words of Jesus? What do they think of the rest of the Bible? Does God’s word govern their ethics? Is the Bible their first authority? Jesus said you will know them by their fruit—which, by the way, comes from the Sermon on the Mount.
When a person has ripped the Sermon on the Mount out of the context of the rest of Scripture, and they get to Matthew 5:38 where Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you…” what they think Jesus is doing here is they think Jesus is saying an “eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” is bad. They think Jesus is saying this is the old way of thinking, but He came to bring us a new way of thinking.
Remember what Jesus said back in verse 17: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets.” But when a person hears Jesus saying “an eye for an eye” is vengeful and wrong, what that person is doing is they’re abolishing the Law and the Prophets. Let the reader understand!
As Voddie Baucham has said, the God on the left side of the book is the same God on the right side of the book. At the judgment of Sodom and Gomorrah, Jesus was not absent, nor was He in disagreement. The same goes for the giving of the Law at Mount Sinai. In fact, it was from Jesus Himself this law was given.
In Exodus 21, just one chapter after the Lord gave the Ten Commandments to Israel, read the following in verses 22-25:
“When men strive together and hit a pregnant woman, so that her children come out, but there is no harm, the one who hit her shall surely be fined, as the woman’s husband shall impose on him, and he shall pay as the judges determine. But if there is harm, then you shall pay life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.”
Is that not fascinating? The very first time “eye for an eye” is mentioned in the Law, it’s regarding the life of an unborn child. If a conflict between men results in a woman being struck—even if it’s an accident. It doesn’t even appear as if she was involved in the altercation. If she’s struck and her children come out, but there is no harm, there will still be a fine, a penalty, for those who caused this serious incident.
But if her child comes out and the child dies, then capital punishment should be exercised on the ones who caused this to happen, and they shall be put to death. The Bible here places the life of an unborn child as equal to the value of an older man. Let’s say the premature birth causes the child to have broken legs, and the child will be crippled for the rest of his or her life. Then you shall take the legs of the offender who caused the pre-mature birth.
If anyone ever says to you, “Abortion isn’t even mentioned in the Bible,” take them to Exodus 20:13, “You shall not murder.” Then turn the page over to Exodus 21:22-25 where it says that if an unborn child dies, if someone caused the unborn child’s death, they shall be put to death.
Isn’t it fascinating what you discover when you read the Law of God? This is an expression of value. God places just as much value on the unborn child as he places on a full-grown man. You might say, “Well, then isn’t the death penalty a contradiction then? You’re taking another person’s life! Then someone has to take your life. And then someone has to take the life of your executioner! It’s a never-ending cycle!”
Nonsense. We’re talking about justice here. If a person is killed unjustly, what was their life worth? God says justice is that the person who killed unjustly must pay the price with their life. A life for a life. Justice has been served. What you will never find in the Law of God is any sentence of imprisonment. That’s not justice. When a man murders another man and receives a life sentence, society is saying the life that was lost is not worth as much as this criminal’s. A guilty criminal is worth more than an innocent victim. That’s unjust. Proverbs 18:5 says, “It is not good to be partial to the wicked or to deprive the righteous of justice.”
I’ve spoken in favor of the death penalty before and had someone tell me, “Hey, he’s locked away. He can’t hurt anyone else.” Sure, he can. I’ve personally spoken face to face with a man in prison—nothing but a plate of glass between us—who had just received a second life-sentence because he killed another man in prison. It didn’t matter to him. He was already in prison for life. Therefore, there could be no further penalty if he killed again. He’d still be in the exact same place with absolutely zero consequences.
A couple of weeks ago, there was a story about a man in Florida named Joseph Edward Williams. He was released from jail on March 19 as a preventative measure against the spread of the coronavirus. Do you know what he was in jail for? Murder. Guess what he did when he was let go? He murdered someone. He went and killed a man in Tampa and was re-arrested on April 13. If our culture placed more value on life than it does, Williams would have received a death sentence, that sentence would have been carried out swiftly, and he would not have been able to kill again.
In Leviticus 24:17, we read, “Whoever takes a human life shall surely be put to death.” Yes, my friends—capital punishment is biblical. A life for a life. Verse 18 says, “Whoever takes an animal’s life shall make it good, life for life.” So if someone killed his neighbor’s mule, he had to pay his neighbor to buy another mule. The life of an animal is not equal to the life of a man, but it’s still worth something.
Verses 19-20 say, “If anyone injures his neighbor, as he has done it shall be done to him, fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; whatever injury he has given a person shall be given to him.” This is the law of just measures, and one of the functions of this law was so that an offender would not be excessively punished for an offense. This law protects offenders as much as it also protects the righteous.
Say a man gets in a fight with his neighbor and he punches him in the eye, and the punch causes his neighbor to lose his eye, the man is not to lose his life over the punch, but he should receive a just punishment. An equal and just punishment would be for him to also lose his eye.
Just so you don’t miss the point, the Lord repeats Himself in verse 21: “Whoever kills an animal shall make it good, and whoever kills a person shall be put to death.” You might say, “Well that just applied to Israel.” Look at verse 22: “You shall have the same rule for the sojourner and for the native, for I am the Lord your God.” It didn’t matter whether they were an Israelite or a Gentile—the justice of God applies to all people because as it says in Romans 3:29, God is the God of Gentiles also.
Now, you might be saying to yourself, “Why are you telling us all of this? We just read in Matthew 5:39, Jesus said, ‘Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.'” As I said in the beginning, Jesus is not saying to overthrow the law and there should never be any civil justice done for any crimes. I bring you back to the Old Testament to see it in context so you will love God’s law and you will likewise desire to uphold it (see Romans 3:31).
Though Jesus is not confronting civil law, He is telling you, “Don’t make a federal case out of everything.” With regards to personal offenses, be merciful! As Jesus said here in Matthew 5:7, “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.” And in Luke 6:36, “Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.” Consider the example that Christ has set for us, and be imitators of Jesus. Consider what we read in 1 Peter 2:19-25:
“For this is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly. For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in His steps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in His mouth. When He was reviled, He did not revile in return; when He suffered, He did not threaten, but He continued entrusting Himself to Him who judges justly. He Himself bore our sins in His body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By His wounds you have been healed. For you were straying like sheep but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.”
People are going to treat you unjustly. They will be unfair to you and walk all over you, just because you love righteousness. How are you to respond? By entrusting yourself to Him who judges justly.
Consider what Jesus has already said in the Sermon on the Mount thus far. Look back up at verses 10 and 11: “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
Here, Jesus says more than “Turn the other cheek.” Rather, He says, “Go the extra mile.” This is where that expression comes from. He says, “Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.”
I know of a man, a Christian author, who was betrayed by some very close friends, a couple who had fallen into serious sin, and that sin led to financial difficulty. But rather than repent of their sin and ask their church for help, they came to this author and demanded that he pay up on a sizeable debt they believed he owed to them. They showed him the paperwork, a financial oversight that was several years old. He asked for some time to investigate the matter, and they gave him one week.
He did his due diligence and took up the discrepancy with his bank. It just so happened that this couple banked at the same place, so a bank clerk was able to look in both accounts, and she assured the author that he did not owe the money this couple insisted that he owed. It cleared when he paid it the first time. He went home and prayed about the matter with his wife, and he was reminded that Jesus said let every charge “be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses” (Matthew 18:16).
A couple of days later, he returned to the bank and he spoke with a different financial examiner. This clerk reviewed the matter with fresh eyes and got the same result. She also assured the author he did not owe this couple the money. If they had any further questions, they could come into the bank. The author shared that with the couple, and he even offered to go to the bank with them. But they remained indignant. They demanded he pay up. But in frustration, the author replied that he investigated the matter thoroughly, and he was not going to pay what they were demanding he pay.
Later that evening, his conscience began to weigh on him. He was reading his Bible, and he was reminded of another word from Jesus—this one in Matthew 5:40-41: “If anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.”
In 1 Corinthians 6:1-8, the Apostle Paul rebuked the Corinthian Christians for taking one another to court. He said, “To have lawsuits at all with one another is already a defeat for you. Why not rather suffer wrong? Why not rather be defrauded? But you yourselves wrong and defraud—even your own brothers.”
Would this couple try to sue the author? He didn’t know. Already he had been astonished how quickly they’d been turned by their sin. But he wondered if going ahead and paying them the money would diffuse any further escalation. It was a lot of money. But was it worth the legal battle that might happen if he didn’t pay? Would they be dragging mutual friends into this, forcing them to have to choose sides? And as an author, someone with a platform, what was the possibility that this would become a bigger deal over a few dollars? The gospel would be mocked by unbelievers observing the behavior of these Christians—it didn’t matter to them who was right and who was wrong.
So the author and his wife made a decision—they were going to pay the money. The author contacted the couple and personally apologized, he expressed his embarrassment for the mistake, he wrote the check himself, and his wife delivered it by hand.
When he was asked later by a member of his church why he did it, even after two witnesses at the bank told him he didn’t owe the money, he said, “I’d never been faced with such a situation before. But here I had a real opportunity to live out the words of Jesus: ‘If anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.’ So I paid the money to the glory of God. My only regret is that I didn’t pay them sooner, and I didn’t pay them more.”
My brothers and sisters in the Lord, do you understand what you deserve for you sin, and do you understand what you’ve been given instead? You have betrayed God, and you have gone after your sin, and it’s sin that begat sin that begat more sin. What you deserve for this treason against God is death. And more than death, but eternal punishment at the hand of God who is eternally just. But what you receive by faith in Christ Jesus is life. And more than life, but eternal life, and more than eternal life but life with Him as a fellow heir of His eternal kingdom.
Romans 6:23 says, “The wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” We know God is merciful when we know God is just. If you do not know the God of justice, then you do not know the God of mercy. Isaiah 30:18 says, “Therefore the Lord waits to be gracious to you, and therefore He exalts Himself to show mercy to you. For the Lord is a God of justice; blessed are all those who wait for Him.”
If you are watching this sermon today, or you’re listening to the audio, or maybe you are reading it online and you don’t know Jesus, I admonish you to repent of your sin and follow Him. God is just, and He will punish the wicked. But Jesus paid for the sins of His people with His death on the cross. He rose from the grave that all who believe in Him will not perish but will be saved unto everlasting life.
Romans 3:25-26 says that God put forward His Son “as a propitiation by His blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in His divine forbearance He had passed over former sins. It was to show His righteousness at the present time, so that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.”