There are so many ways to misread a passage like the one we are considering this morning. Passivism and its variants have often found refuge in passages like this one. An extreme example was that of the Russian author Leo Tolstoy who believed that these verses forbade any opposition to evil in the most absolute sense. He therefore didn’t believe in government, in particular the police, because the job of police is to oppose evildoers. From this passage he reasoned, “It is impossible at one and the same time to confess Christ as God, the basis of whose teachings is non-resistance to him that is evil, and consciously and calmly to work for the establishment of property, law courts, government and military forces. . . .”
On the other hand, some people have looked at this passage, thought it taught what Tolstoy thought it taught, but who found such teaching to be so unreasonable that they have written Christ off altogether. Clearly, government is not bad (in and of itself – although bad government is bad or too much government may be bad). We all recognize the need for police. I for one don’t want to live in Mogadishu. As Christians we believe what the apostle Paul wrote to the Roman Christians, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God” (Rom. 13:1). Paul even goes on to assert the power of the government to exercise capital punishment for wrongdoers (ver. 4). So it is clear that the apostles of our Lord themselves did not interpret this passage in terms of anarchy and passivism.
What’s ironical about this is that our Lord’s words which today are subject to so much misinterpretation and misapplication were themselves an attempt to correct a misapplication of God’s word. It’s not that they misunderstood what God’s word said; it’s that they misapplied it. “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’” This is a clear and direct quotation from the Law of Moses (see Exod. 21:24; Lev. 24:20; Deut. 19:21). Of course our Lord’s following words in verse 39, “But I say to you . . .” imply that he is correcting something here. What was he correcting?
It seems that the Pharisees of Jesus’ day took these words which were clearly meant for the judges and the authorities and had made them the rule for personal conduct. The Law of Moses was in this law simply prescribing that the punishment must fit the crime. You couldn’t knock out someone’s tooth out of malice and then be forced to have all your teeth knocked out as recompense! That seems reasonable as far as it goes. However, this law was not meant to be enforced by the private individual. It was meant or the judges. This is especially clear in the Deut. 19 passage. If someone harmed you, the Law of Moses did not allow you to administer the punishment to the crime on your own. This had to be done by the authorities. Vigilante justice was not advocated in OT law.
So when Jesus says, “Do not resist the one who is evil,” he is not saying that government is bad or that police are bad or that the military is bad. He is not saying that we should not work for justice in this world. He is saying that the Pharisaic application of the Law of Moses that allowed for the personal administration of justice is wrong.
Now some might agree that government is okay and that we should submit to it and so on, but would look at this passage and say that no Christian should participate in government. No Christian should run for office, should serve as a law-enforcement office, or should serve in the military. What should we say to that?
Well, I think of what John the Baptist told the soldiers who came to him at the river Jordan. They came to John the Baptist who was preaching repentance and asked him how they should make their repentance concrete. What John doesn’t tell them is almost as important as what John does tell them: “And he said to them, ‘Do not extort money from anyone by threats or by false accusation, and be content with your wages’” (Luke 3:14). Notice that he didn’t tell them to leave their occupation as soldiers. Later, when Peter was sent to preach to a Roman centurion, Cornelius, Peter accepts him as a fellow-believer and member of the church without requiring him to leave the ranks of the Roman army (cf. Acts 10-11). Jesus himself dealt with government officials and centurions, never once hinting that their occupation was immoral or dishonoring to God or false to his teaching.
What then was our Lord teaching in these verses?
This paragraph is just a practical outworking of what it means to be meek. Remember that our Lord had just said, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth” (Mt. 5:5). When we looked at that passage several weeks ago, we argued that a meek person is someone whose God-centeredness leads them to deny themselves for the sake of others. They are not always looking out for themselves, they are free of that, and this freedom allows them to serve others. Now that, I think, is the key to correctly applying this passage. Far from looking out for our own selves, as the Pharisees wanted to do, Jesus tells us to deny ourselves, to stop looking out for ourselves. I think the reason he wants us to be this way is clear, and is made clearer in the next paragraph: you won’t be able to love others the way God calls you to love them – especially those who are hardest to love, your enemies – until you die to your own self.
This is the principle governing our Lord’s words: “Do not resist the one who is evil.” The principle is that of self-denial for the sake of serving others and being a witness to them. Our Lord himself is the supreme example of this. The apostle Peter writes of him, “When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly” (1 Pet. 2:23). He was doing the Father’s will; it was the cup given to him. He willingly drank it because of all men who have ever lived, Jesus knew what it meant to deny oneself. For us to deny ourselves is to follow him – to take up a cross after his example. He did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life a ransom for many. And so to that end, he willingly endured abuse for the sake of serving those he came to save.
It is the easiest thing in the world to serve those who are your friends. It is much harder to serve those who want to abuse you. But you cannot serve them if you are trying to get back at them. You can’t serve them and be a witness to them for good if you are trying to get revenge. Think about what Paul wrote: “Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ To the contrary, ‘If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink’” - now note the motivation Paul gives for this: “’for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Rom. 12:17-21). There has been a lot of debate over what Paul means by “burning coals” – whether it is a metaphor for God’s judgment or whether it is a metaphor for a stricken conscience. I think it probably means the latter, especially given what verse 21 says. The purpose of doing good to those who do evil to you is so that evil will be overcome with good. It seems to me that overcoming evil with good happens most clearly when those who are evil are made to repent through the goodness of those whom they have abused.
A Christian has more than one reason to live this way. One, our Lord has told us to; but just as important, the gospel demands it. A Christian is someone who believes that the Son of God laid down his life for him or her when they were enemies to God (Rom. 5:9). Christ paid the ultimate sacrifice so that we could live. But the sacrifice he had to make was made necessary because we had wronged him. Christ did not die for his own sins, he died for our sins; more than that, he died for our sins against him. Your eternal life depends on the fact that Jesus Christ will not repay evil for your evil. Now he calls us to imitate him, and it would be the greatest hypocrisy if we did not do so.
That then is the general principle: we are to return good for evil for the sake of our witness, so that we can overcome evil with good. Jesus then works it out in four different applications in verses 39-42. We will consider each one in turn.
First, he says, “But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” First of all, we must always keep this general principle in mind. Some, forgetting this, apply these words in an over-literalistic way and end up with ridiculous scenarios that our Lord never intended. It’s important again to point out the fact that our Lord is not opposing justice or law and order. He is opposing the personal vendetta, the private campaign to avenge ourselves of our adversary.
Thus, he is not saying that if someone breaks into your home and puts your family in jeopardy that you shouldn’t defend your loved ones, even with physical violence if necessary. I can’t think of any other reason why Jesus would tell his disciples to carry swords if not to defend themselves (Luke 22:38).
Rather, what he is saying is that you should be willing to endure the personal insult for the sake of the gospel. In Jesus’ day, to slap someone across the cheek was the worst sort of personal insult; probably our Lord wasn’t even thinking of slapping in terms of someone trying to physically harm another. This is not a jaw-breaking punch, this is the slap of an insult. So again I don’t think that Jesus is saying that we should not defend ourselves if we think our life is in danger; that is not what Jesus is teaching here. This is more about your reputation than it is your physical safety. The point is that we shouldn’t meet hate with hate. As Christians we want others to know the love of God in Christ, and to that end we should be willing to endure the worst insults to our name if that is what means to show love to our enemies – so that ultimately they might be saved.
However, I want to make clear that there are times when a Christian is called to lay down their lives for the sake of the gospel, to endure physical abuse, and that sometimes this is just the thing that God uses to advance his cause and his kingdom. The kingdom of God is never advanced by violence on our part, and surely our Lord’s words here underline that fact. One of the first men ever to become a Christian in what is now Afghanistan was beheaded for his faith – but it was not until he was killed that people all around him wondered what kind of religion it was that caused this man to courageously accept his death, and it led them to begin to investigate the faith of Christ and almost immediately to the conversion of at least one other person.
Next, our Lord says, “And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well.” Under Jewish law (cf. Exod. 22:25-27), it was illegal to sue for one’s outer garment [cloak] but you could sue for their inner garment [tunic]. But Jesus tells us that if someone comes along and sues us for the tunic we should not stop there but should go ahead and give them even that which is protected by law.
Now what are we to say to this? Is he saying that every charlatan that comes along and tries through some legal (or illegal) means to take our property that we should just stand back and let him? Clearly not. After all, how would this comport with the command to provide for our families (cf. 1 Tim. 5:8)? Again, we must keep the overarching principle in mind: we are called to deny ourselves for the sake of others. As Stott put it, what Jesus is teaching here is “not the irresponsibility which encourages evil but the forbearance which renounces revenge.”
In this instance as in the previous instance, something is being taken from us. In verse 39, it is your reputation that is being taken away, probably unjustly. Here, in verse 40, it is your property that is being taken away from you. In both instances, our natural and immediate reaction is to get back, to get revenge. What Jesus is doing in both cases is to call us away from a spirit of retaliation and to a spirit forgiveness and goodness. When others are spiteful, we are called to be patient; where others are selfish we are called to be generous.
Here again, we are called to deny ourselves. We are called to respond to evil with good. We are not to insist upon our rights, but we are to look out for the good of others. Most importantly, we are to live in such a way that others will see Christ in us and be led to him through us. Hate and revenge never saved anyone. On the other hand, love and forbearance and patience and generosity have paved many gospel roads into peoples’ hearts.
Probably few people have demonstrated this so clearly in our time as Dr. Martin Luther King. At his funeral, Dr. Benjamin Mays listed the injustices he had to endure but then noted how he responded to them: “If any man knew the meaning of suffering, King knew. House bombed; living day by day for thirteen years under constant threats of death; maliciously accused of being a Communist; falsely accused of being insincere . . . ; stabbed by a member of his own race; slugged in a hotel lobby; jailed over twenty times; occasionally deeply hurt because friends had betrayed him – and yet this man had no bitterness in his heart, no rancor in his soul, no revenge in his mind; and he went up and down the length and breadth of this world preaching non-violence and the redemptive power of love.” This is exactly the kind of life that Jesus lived and exemplified and which he calls us to imitate.
The next illustration our Lord gives is in verse 41: “And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.” What our Lord has in mind here was “the compulsory transportation of military baggage” by Jews, imposed on them by Roman soldiers. Again, something was being taken away. Their time, their effort, and their freedom are all being taken away from them. What was even more odious to the Jew who had to undergo this type of servitude is that it was being done for the personnel of a foreign and occupation army.
How does this apply to us? How does this connect to the general principle of self-denial for the sake of the gospel? I think the apostle Peter helps us out here. He was writing to Christians who were living under an empire that did not provide protections for being a Christian. Some of them were being persecuted. Some of them were enduring evil. And their first instinct would have been to rebel against the government, or at least to cooperate with it as little as possible. And yet Peter tells his readers to submit to the government. Why? Peter tells us, “Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people” (1 Pet. 2:13-15). Peter is clearly concerned with their witness to the gospel.
In the same way, we ought to live as citizens of our government in such a way that we do not bring dishonor to the gospel. We may not agree with everything it does; we may feel that we have been wronged by this or that law. But, according to our Lord and his apostles, we must obey our leaders. We must give them no reason to reject the gospel because we are lawless.
That doesn’t mean that there aren’t times when Christians can legitimately work to reform a bad and corrupt government. But, like Dr. King, we must do so in a way that is consistent with gospel of Jesus Christ. We must always do so through lawful means. And we must do so with the glory of our Lord paramount in our minds – even more paramount than our own rights.
Finally, Jesus extends this teaching with the words: “Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.” As we’ve been pointing out, our Lord’s teaching is that when something is taken from us – our dignity, property, freedom – we are not to respond with evil in our hearts but are called to meet evil with good, hate with love. But here, nothing is being taken from us. Someone is asking us to give them something. Jesus says that we are not to shut our hearts to them but are to give.
But again, this is just another application of the overall principle of denying ourselves for the sake of others. And again, we are not meant to apply this verse with a forced literalism that leads to stupid scenarios. Jesus is not asking us to give money to a person who is obviously going to go spend it on drink. He is not commanding us to support professional beggars. Rather, he is telling us to be generous and to create gospel roads into people’s lives by giving to them in their time of need. After all, is this not how God relates to us? Is this not what prayer is all about? We beg of God in prayer, and he gives to us –freely, and over and over again, thank God!
Will you be like Christ? This is what this passage is asking of you. You claim to be the recipient of grace freely and lavishly given. Well then, will you not show it to others? As the apostle John points out, how can you claim to love God whom you have not seen and then not love your brother whom you have seen? And how can we not want to show grace to the lost when God has shown it to us?
There is no better way to pave a gospel road into someone’s heart than by showing good in the face of evil. People may argue with you about the gospel, but no one can argue with this kind of love. May God work such a love into the hearts of each of us!
 From What I Believe, by Tolstoy. Qtd. in John Stott, The Message of the Sermon on the Mount, p. 108.
 Lloyd-Jones, Studies in the Sermon on the Mount, p. 250.
 P. 108.
 Quoted in Stott, p. 114.
 Stott, p. 106.