JESUS ON OVERCOMING EVIL
Matthew 5:38-42 (parallel Luke 6:27-36)
You have heard that it was said, 'Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.' But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.
There are two kinds of “hard” texts in the Bible: those that are difficult to understand, and those we understand too well but don’t practice. The text before us tonight has a little bit of both. Many people throughout history have either misunderstood this text, or made it so controversial to the point of making obedience to Jesus’ words unnecessary and secondary. In cases like this it is extremely important that we remember the context of Jesus words, and allow Scripture to interpret Scripture for us.
Jesus and Kingdom Life
- In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus is deeply concerned to provide us with a clear picture of what the Kingdom of God is like, and what is expected of subjects who live in that Kingdom.
- He puts before us the blessed life in such a way that is intended to capture our wills and imaginations.
- The spirituality of Jesus’ followers flows from the heart and thus exceeds all the external righteousness of the externally moral and religious. This is why much of the teaching of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount is put in contrast with what is false and what is pagan about the spiritualities of his day.
- The further we go in Jesus’ sermon, the more we must remember the Beatitudes. Disciples of the Kingdom are first of all poor in spirit. They are acutely aware of their spiritual bankruptcy. Further, they are those who mourn over their poverty. They mourn because they know who it is they have offended, and who they were meant to be. This awareness creates brokenness, a meekness that is hungry – hungry for a righteousness that goes far beyond what we are able to achieve. The good news is that this is what God delights to provide for us in Christ, an “alien” righteousness that is nothing less than the perfection of God’s Son Himself. This righteousness takes root in the life of the disciple and begins to produce fruit that bears the likeness of Jesus. Mercy, purity and peace begin to flow out of this new heart. The beauty of this life is despised by the world because it bears the image of the Author of Light, and so provokes persecution and hatred. But persecution only serves to confirm the purity of its source, the life and light of God.
The entire OT points to Jesus as its fulfillment and perfection. Jesus upholds the Law given to Moses by emphasizing the deep spirituality of the Law now displayed in his disciples. “For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven” (5:20). “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (5:48).
Jesus fulfills the Law (and so do his disciples)
These verses serve as bookends that explain all that is in-between them. Jesus is showing concrete examples of how his disciples’ righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the Pharisees – at the same time showing it in a way that is in complete harmony with the original Law of Moses. Jesus is showing that not only does he fulfill the Law and Prophets with his words and works, but his disciples do too because they enter into his words and works through faith.
This is why Paul can say later on,
"Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death. For what the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sinful nature, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in sinful man, in order that the righteous requirements of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the sinful nature but according to the Spirit" (Romans 8:1-4).
OT Law: Eye for Eye, Tooth for Tooth
You have heard that it was said, 'Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’
The purpose of this OT Law was to provide guidance for justice and to restrain punishment so that it did not escalate into brutal tribal vengeance.
“If men who are fighting hit a pregnant woman and she gives birth prematurely but there is no serious injury, the offender must be fined whatever the woman's husband demands and the court allows. But if there is serious injury, you are to take life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise” (Exodus 21:22-25).
“ ‘If anyone takes the life of a human being, he must be put to death. Anyone who takes the life of someone's animal must make restitution—life for life. If anyone injures his neighbor, whatever he has done must be done to him: fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth. As he has injured the other, so he is to be injured. Whoever kills an animal must make restitution, but whoever kills a man must be put to death. You are to have the same law for the alien and the native-born. I am the LORD your God’” (Leviticus 24:17-22).
“If a malicious witness takes the stand to accuse a man of a crime, the two men involved in the dispute must stand in the presence of the LORD before the priests and the judges who are in office at the time. The judges must make a thorough investigation, and if the witness proves to be a liar, giving false testimony against his brother, then do to him as he intended to do to his brother. You must purge the evil from among you. The rest of the people will hear of this and be afraid, and never again will such an evil thing be done among you. Show no pity: life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot” (Deut. 19:16-21).
This command was intended for the judges in Israel to use when they gave their judgments. Its purpose was to place restraint on the act of punishment so that it did not end up in a brutal tribal feud like the famous Hatfield & McCoy feud on the Kentucky – West Virginia border in the late 1800s. 12 people were killed in 12 years, a bloody feud all started over a pig. It eventually escalated into hostilities between the States as each Governor had to get involved, one accusing the other of treachery. (Interestingly enough, the Hatfields & McCoys hold a reunion festival each year now, having signed a truce in 2003.)
Jesus: We overcome evil by dying to self (“But I say to you . . .”)
What the Pharisees and teachers of the Law had done by Jesus’ time was to take this Law and personalize it and so make it a “right.” It was no longer a restraint on vengeance, but it was their “right” to do harm. Personal vengeance became a “right” that any Jew could claim as part of their heritage.
Like all the other commandments that Jesus mentions in this chapter, the Pharisees had missed the heart of God’s Law by focusing on the external keeping of it. Such focus on external law-keeping always turns into permissiveness. The command against murder provided them ample room to hate; the command against adultery provided them the opportunity to cultivate lust, the command regarding oaths provided them room to lie, and so on (cf. Romans 7:7ff).
Jesus provides us with four illustrations that highlight the heart issue behind the “eye for eye” law. Jesus has been using hyperbole frequently in his sermon, a form of rhetorical exaggeration to get the attention of his students. While we shouldn’t take his examples in a literalistic way, as if they were each new laws to be obeyed universally and in every circumstance – we should feel the weight of this new Kingdom way that Jesus intends. It is the way of righteousness that exceeds the Pharisees’ righteousness.
Four illustrations that Jesus uses
1. But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.
When someone slapped another person on the right cheek in Jesus’ day (using the back of their right hand) it was the most insulting thing one person could do to another apart from injuring him. Jesus is saying that if someone severely insults you, you should offer them the chance to take another shot.
What Jesus is challenging here is our strong tendency to avenge ourselves, to defend our personal “rights” and “honor”. When we are personally insulted, our first reaction is to strike back. We re-enact the event over and over in our minds giving a multitude of equally violent responses that puts the other person in his/her “place.” Especially after the event has taken place, we keep bringing it up, thinking, “I should have said ____,” Or, “I wish I would have said ____!”
Just as anger is the same as murder and lust the same as adultery, so a vengeful spirit is the same in Jesus’ eyes as ruthless vengeful actions. We need to take note of the fact that the issue of defending my own rights and honor when insulted is a very different thing from protecting another person from physical abuse, or restraining evil in service to the State (see Romans 13; 1 Peter 2).
2. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well.
Here Jesus is going further to address our legal “rights.” According to Jewish law, a person could be sued for his inner garment (shirt/tunic) but not the outer (coat/cloak) because the cloak was often used for a blanket to sleep in at night, and was considered every person’s “right.” We should be willing to surrender our legal rights too.
We live in a society where litigation and law suits are skyrocketing out of control, getting more and more absurd by the year.
A British woman visiting Knoxville, Tennessee sued the McDonald’s there because she claims she was disfigured by an extremely hot pickle. Veronica Martin filed a lawsuit claiming $110,000 damages for medical bills, lost wages and mental pain and anguish. She claimed she suffered a second degree burn on her chin after a "scalding hot" pickle fell from one of several small hamburgers on to her face.Her husband, not to be left out of the action, also sued for $15,000, saying that he had been deprived of the services and companionship of his wife.The lawsuit contended that the pickle was "defective and unreasonably dangerous" to the customer. McDonald’s settled the case (BBC, April 2001).
A volunteer little league baseball coach was sued by one of the parents of his catcher because the team went 0-15 for the season. “Poor coaching” was the charge against Rodney Carroll of Brunswick, Ohio, and $2,000 was the fine.
Unfortunately, we don’t need to go out and look at Culture alone for this, but we can look at the Church too. Paul had to scold the Corinthians because they were taking each other to court (1 Cor. 6:1-11) even though one day these same believers would sit over angels in judgment in God’s court! James (James 2:6; cf. 4:1-6) also had to rebuke rich believers for dragging poor believers into court.
The fact that this was not a universal rule to be applied all the time is shown by looking at other Scriptures: Jesus in John 18:22-23 does not just silently take the slap in the face; he speaks not out of selfish concern, but out of concern to uphold the law. Similarly, Paul in Acts 16:37 did not just quietly accept unjust treatment, but made the magistrates admit they had been illegal in their arrest & imprisonment (probably for the sake of the church at Philippi). Martyn Lloyd-Jones strikes a good balance here: “The Christian is not to be concerned about personal insults and personal defense. But when it is a matter of honor and justice, righteousness and truth, he must be concerned and thus he makes his protest. When the law is not honored, when it is flagrantly broken, not in any personal interest, not in anyway to protect himself, he acts as a believer in God, as one who believes that all law ultimately derives from God” (Studies in the Sermon on the Mount, 285).
3. If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.
Roman soldiers in Jesus’ day had the authority to conscript citizens who were nearby to carry their luggage, or to do manual labor. Roman soldiers made Simon of Cyrene, for example, carry Jesus’ cross to Golgotha (Matt. 27:32).
This illustration has to do with honoring the government that is placed over us by God – which includes the payment of taxes, voting, abiding by the law, etc. One contemporary equivalent might be when a policeman needs to commandeer your vehicle to accomplish a task. Here Jesus asks us to surrender our “rights” in relationship to the government when it is necessary for the sake of love.
4. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.
People have taken this illustration literally and never refused anything anyone ever asked of them – and gone bankrupt, forcing them to abort what God was calling them to do. The point here is that the general rule of our lives should not be a tit-for-tat kind of “what can I get out of life?”, but a generous “what can I give?” kind of life.
Think of when someone wants to borrow something that is precious to you. It is so hard to let go sometimes! What is your typical response when someone asks something of you – either money, time, possessions? Think of your most prized possession – can I borrow it for a month?
We need to remember that we have no rights as far as anything in this world is concerned.
“In many places in the world today we see people fighting and lobbying under the banner of Christianity for all sorts of human rights and freedoms, both personal and political. To what extent the Bible actually recognizes such rights is a complex question. But in terms of individual spirituality, at least, the mature Christian should know that he has no right even to the shirt on his back or to his next meal, let alone the right to vote, to have a pension, to enjoy good health, or to get eight hours of sleep every night.“. . . We Christians know in our bones that we never had any right to be created in the first place, let alone redeemed. We know we have no more inherent title to life and its goodness than a dead man has. For us the coffin lid has already been nailed shut on all the natural joys and privileges that earth can offer. Knowing this, we are free to bless the Lord in all circumstances, whether we find ourselves clothed or naked” (Mike Mason, The Gospel According to Job, 37-38).
Jesus’ teaching exposes the heart issue: addiction to self-interest
At first glance these illustrations seem to center around dealing with evil people. This last illustration shows us that something deeper is going on here though. The deeper issue that Jesus is flushing out is our addiction to self and self-interest. Jesus is rebuking us because we are always considering ourselves first, always self-conscious instead of God-conscious.
These illustrations don’t display a weakling who never offers resistance to any form of evil. Rather, it shows the humble peacemaker, the meek, merciful and pure disciple whose control of himself and love for others are so powerful that retaliation is rejected and love freely offered.
Jesus is displaying here a radical love for his disciples to live in – the self-less love of a person who is furiously loved by God. A person who, when injured, refuses to satisfy himself by taking revenge, but instead is a student of the highest welfare of the other person and of society, and determines the right course of action. (John Stott, Christian Counter-culture, 107)
Again, one of the things we have to remember is that Jesus is not dealing directly with the question of war, pacificism, or even “Christian Non-Resistance.” He is providing us a general way of life for Kingdom disciples in their personal relationships.
Think about your first, knee-jerk response to the following situations:
Someone cut you off on the road, and to top it off he gave you the finger.
The item you’ve been looking for for years is finally for sale on Ebay but you were out-bid at the last minute.
Someone cut in front of you in line at Disney World after you have waited for 1 hour.
A customer called and chewed you out viciously for no reason.
A neighbor spit in your face because you are a Christian.
Words you have spoken (or not spoken) are twisted by your family.
This community needs your financial support.
What does your response reveal about where your heart is?
The Gospel Life
Everything is Grace!
We live as if this is a “tit-for-tat” universe, where what Larry Crabb calls the law of linearity rules:“Choose what you want out of life, figure out what you have to do to get it, then follow the rules.” (Crabb, The Pressure’s Off, 19). It is living according to Law.
We wake up every morning convinced that we have fundamental rights as Christians who happen to also be American citizens. When challenged, we push for our rights to be acknowledged at every opportunity. We get intensely ticked off when we don’t get our own way. This is living according to the old way.
The new way is the way of grace. For the disciple of Jesus, our world is one where everything is grace. There are no rights, only privileges; no demands, only blessings. Close your eyes and take a deep breath. That breath was not the result of random forces working within this place. It was the breath of life from the very hand of God, which he can choose to withhold at any time. If you have clothes, food, shelter, salvation, love, peace, joy, trials, heartache – it is all grace. We are owed nothing by God, so we may demand nothing.
Death to self is the way to the blessed life
In this world of grace, the way of life is marked first by death. We must put off our old selves, because we have been crucified with Christ. We must then put on our new selves made according to the likeness of Christ in holiness and love (Col. 3)
"If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it” (Mark 8:34-35).
For through the law I died to the law so that I might live for God. I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!" (Galatians 2:19-21)
May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. (Galatians 6:14)
Overcoming Evil with Good
The way God deals with the evil of our sin is to redeem it by absorbing it. He sent his Son to absorb within his body all the selfish warped intentions and actions of mankind and he took it with him to the grave. All the raging evil darkness of man is spent upon the shores of God’s infinite holy love! The resurrection of Christ from the dead proves that our sin no longer defines Christ or us. We are new creatures.
As new creatures redeemed and defined by Christ, we too can overcome evil. The display of love in wise non-resistance in the face of personal evil can win the world over.
Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God's wrath, for it is written: "It is mine to avenge; I will repay," says the Lord. On the contrary: "If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head."Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good (Romans 12:17-21; cf. Deut. 32:35; Prov. 25:21,22 )
The Suffering Christ is our example
Jesus was the perfect example of this for us. He not only provides sacrificial payment for our sins of self-worship, but his life provides us with the energy and example of how to overcome evil by doing good.
For it is God's will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish men. . . . Slaves, submit yourselves to your masters with all respect, not only to those who are good and considerate, but also to those who are harsh. For it is commendable if a man bears up under the pain of unjust suffering because he is conscious of God. But how is it to your credit if you receive a beating for doing wrong and endure it? But if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God. To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps. "He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth."When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed (1 Peter 2:15, 17-24).
Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34)
Read through the stories of Jesus’ trials and crucifixion again – are you amazed at how meek he is? How, in the face of suffering and shame that is infinitely unfair, he is silent? No one suffered more than Christ!
“No one every deserved suffering less, yet received so much.” (Piper, Seeing and Savoring Jesus Christ, 73). He is the only one who would have been perfectly justified in retaliating; he could have called upon 12 legions of fighting angels to help if he wanted to (Matt. 26:53), but he chose not to out of love for us. Behold the bloody love that is displayed for us on the cross!
To those who are hurting:
Some of you may have received deep wounds when you were young that drastically affect how you hear this text. It’s almost as if your rights were stripped from you, so this text feels more like death than life to you. Receive healing from Christ. His mercies are tender and new every morning.
Some of you may be wondering if Jesus is simply establishing new laws much like the old ones, just stricter. You feel the weight of these commands and have difficulty seeing life in them.
This is why the order of teaching in the Sermon on the Mount is so important. The Beatitudes come first. What that means is that grace comes first, gospel comes first. Every part of this sermon points us back to that foundation; it won’t let us forget that we need to be resurrected before we can live. The foundation of living this kind of life is a growing experiential awareness of the free gift love of God in Christ.
Do not lose heart! Do not hear these words of Jesus as something you need to do in order to find life! Life is freely available at the Cross! Once you have drunk deeply of this grace, the promise of God is that you will find the ability to love as Jesus loves.
To those who are entrenched in selfishness:
Others of you are entrenched in a demanding spirit that clings to rights. This is most evident when suffering hits you – you demand your comfort and you demand it now! God better comply, or you will find life somewhere else!
Repent from the death of self-centeredness and turn to the freedom of slavery to Christ. Throw your self-worship on the cross! Watch it die! Kneel and receive the new life of Christ that centers on God and His heart.
The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, "This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me." In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, "This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me." For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes (1 Cor. 11:23-26).
If you have surrendered your heart and your rights to Christ and trust in Him alone for life, then come – drink freely of the fountain of grace and life!
If you have not surrendered your heart and life to Christ, then please stay seated. This act symbolizes a reality that is for Christ’s disciples. Take Christ!
D.Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Studies in the Sermon on the Mount
D.A. Carson, Commentary on Matthew, EBC
John Piper, Seeing and Savoring Jesus Christ
John Stott, Christian Counter-Culture
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship
Larry Crabb, The Pressure's Off
Mike Mason, The Gospel According to Job