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. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well.
These words of Jesus are familiar, but they are also very challenging, and we ought to be very careful not to strip them of their impact by immediately trying to qualify them in a thousand different ways. Yet we also need to be sure to understand what is not commanded here. These verses don’t advocate some kind of apathetic passivity, although they’re pressed in that way by some. So how should we interpret what Jesus said?
It’s always important to compare Scripture with Scripture. The instruction given here is for interpersonal relationships; it’s not given to determine the role of the state either in warfare or in the execution of justice (Romans 13:1-7). The key is to distinguish between the temptation we face to enact personal vengeance and the duty we’ve been given to uphold both God’s glory and the rule of law. Jesus doesn’t want us to be unconcerned about issues of truth, righteousness, or justice. But He also doesn’t want us to be driven by a desire to protect our own rights or to pursue personal revenge.
David understood this distinction when he called down curses on people in the imprecatory psalms (for example, Psalm 5:10). He was not seeking to execute personal vengeance. Rather, he was looking at God’s glory and majesty and at the wholesale rebellion of the culture and saying to God, Please, for the glory and honor of Your name, deal with these circumstances.
Similarly, although Paul wrote that we should never avenge ourselves (Romans 12:19), he, too, recognized the separation between retaliation and matters of civil justice. In Philippi, he and Silas were accused of unlawful actions and dragged away to jail. Acts 16 records how, when the magistrates tried to release them quietly, “Paul said to them, ‘They have beaten us publicly, uncondemned, men who are Roman citizens, and have thrown us into prison; and do they now throw us out secretly? No! Let them come themselves and take us out.’” Then “the police reported these words to the magistrates, and they were afraid when they heard that they were Roman citizens” (Acts 16:37-38). They were afraid because they knew what they had done was illegal. Yet there was no sense of personal vengeance in what Paul did. Rather, he was upholding the rule of law.
We will be helped as we keep in mind this distinction between personal retaliation and matters of civil justice. We need the humility to trust God for justice in our interpersonal relationships and the courage to promote righteousness and the glory of His name and the integrity of the rule of law. But the challenge still stands: without ignoring justice, we are to seek to bless those who have hurt us and to share with those who have taken from us. What might that look like for you?
Devotional material is taken from the Truth For Life daily devotional by Alistair Begg,