For far too long the Christian Church has been passive and apathetic, watching freedom and justice slip away from our land, and many have pointed to verses like these to justify their passivity and apathy, as though Jesus is requiring His people to lose. But we can look at Scripture and history and see moments of great resistance: Abraham, Moses, Gideon, David, the Apostle Paul, Christian medieval knights defending Christians from Muslim marauders, the Huguenots fighting for religious liberty, and even the founders of America fighting for independence.
So how does our Lord’s teaching about enemies and justice apply to us? Whether we are thinking about the way pagans are seeking to destroy our Christian culture: think Drag Queens, an obese welfare state taxing us and regulating us into the ground, and cancel culture (including small town petty politics that try to suppress the gospel through zoning laws), or international conflict in the Middle East or Europe (should Ukraine turn the other cheek? Should Israel refuse to resist Hamas? Should the colonial Americans have submitted to British demands?), or interpersonal conflict you may have in your family (does Jesus require you to give in to the demands of your toddler in the candy aisle?), what does Jesus mean and how does this teaching apply to us and our world?
The short answer is that Jesus is forbidding all personal animosity and vengeance. He is not forbidding or setting aside basic principles of justice. He is not forbidding self-defense, just wars, just laws and enforcement, parents correcting their children, or church discipline. He is forbidding the fleshly response of returning evil for evil. Instead, He is requiring His people to resist and fight all evil with good. You must fight. You must resist evil. But you must resist evil with good; you must overcome evil with good.
The Text: “Ye have heard that it hath been said, ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth’: but I say unto you, that ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloke also. And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain. Give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away.”
Summary of the Text
Jesus quotes from the criminal law of Israel “eye for an eye” (Ex. 21:24, Lev. 24:20, Dt. 19:21), having just recently affirmed the ongoing validity of the law (Mt. 5:17-20), and He says that this criminal justice is not to be applied by individual persons as acts of vengeance. This good principle of justice may not be weaponized to simply “punch/strike back.” Rather, our personal disposition is to be patient and forbearing (Mt. 5:39). In a battle, it is sometimes necessary to allow the enemy to strike you in order to deliver the appropriate blow. This requires discipline, thoughtfulness, patience, and fortitude. This is what Jesus is requiring, not absolute passivity or apathy. When you are struck (with words, insults, injustice, or physical harm), you may not strike back in a blind rage. But Jesus is not forbidding self-defense, protection of your property, or seeking true justice.
This includes when we are sued and taken to court and the judge allows our goods to plundered (Mt. 5:40). Notice that Jesus assumes we would argue our case in court, not simply give whatever has been unjustly demanded of us. But given the nature of man and the tendency of courts to be corrupted, Jesus says, we should be fully prepared to surrender not only our hats, but also our coats (Mt. 5:40). These are not tactics of apathy; they are tactics of ultimate victory. If you scream and rage and take matters into your own hands, you’ll end up in prison or dead. Sometimes, you have to retreat in order to regroup to fight another day. Likewise, under foreign occupation, you may be compelled and commandeered like slaves. This may be utterly unjust, but if you want to actually put up a fight and seek freedom, you need to be prepared to go the extra mile (Mt. 5:41). Our personal disposition is to be thoroughly and sacrificially generous to all (Mt. 5:42). True justice and freedom grow in the soil of goodness. Goodness is not apathetic. But goodness is kind, generous, and patient.
Principles of Justice
Jesus is not setting aside this central principle of justice that requires magistrates to repay evil equitably (“eye for eye”). We know this because elsewhere magistrates are still required to uphold justice (Rom. 13:4), God executes justice by “repaying” evil (Rom. 12:19), and Jesus Himself says in the judgment He will repay each person according to what he has done (Mt. 16:27, Rev. 22:12). “Eye for eye” is known as the lex talionis, the law of exact retribution or literally “the law of such a nature.” The lex talionis itself was meant to require careful calculation/deliberation and prohibit punishments driven by vengeance. When someone takes out your eye, your flesh wants to take off their head. Rage is blind. But this principle of justice requires due process, careful deliberation. Capital punishment is an example of “life for life,” but the Bible requires careful inquiry and 2-3 witnesses to establish every sin or crime. Likewise, restitution for lost, damaged, or stolen goods would be another example of “eye for eye” (Ex. 22:1-4). But again, that justice must be established by 2-3 witnesses, with judges carefully weighing the evidence, and the right of the accused to cross examine his accusers and provide witnesses of his own. This principle of justice in other words requires thoughtfulness and patience, not flying off the handle. Zacchaeus honored this principle of justice when he restored four-fold for his tax-thieving (Lk. 19:8). What Jesus prohibits here is using criminal justice as a justification for personal vengeance (Mt. 5:39). While not setting aside true justice, we must be willing to endure mistreatment, precisely because we believe in true justice. If you simply strike back (physically or verbally or emotionally), you’re part of the problem. You’re just joining the terrorists and mobs.
Leave Vengeance for the Cops
Paul makes the same point in Romans 12 where he says not to repay any man evil for evil (Rom. 12:17), pursue peace with all men (Rom. 12:18), leave vengeance for the Lord to repay (Rom. 12:19), and do personal good to enemies (Rom. 12:20), overcoming evil with good (Rom. 12:21). Immediately after that, it says that the civil magistrate is the power ordained by God to minister God’s vengeance and wrath on evildoers (Rom. 13:4). This means if you caught a thief breaking and entering, you could call the cops, give him a glass of water while you wait, and then press charges. And there need not be anything “unChristlike” about it.
Likewise, as we already noted Jesus does not forbid arguing our case before magistrates or require us to give up our cloaks simply because a private individual demanded we do so (Mt. 5:40), just as Paul defended himself and argued his case elsewhere (cf. Acts 25-26). Rather, Jesus forbids us from angrily refusing to be defrauded if the case goes against us (Mt. 5:40). He prohibits us from despairing that all hope is lost. He prohibits us from responding in a blind fury or rage. If the case goes against us, we need to be prepared to receive that graciously, but that need not preclude making another appeal, like Paul who appealed to Rome. But sometimes it really is better to be defrauded even before the case goes to court (1 Cor. 6:7). If the whole dispute would simply bring shame on the name of Christ, we should drop it like a hot rock. Christians quarrelling over money is almost always a recipe for shame.
Tyranny, Slavery, and Freedom
Sometimes living in slavery and under tyranny is necessary (if you want to stay alive and out of prison), and sometimes rebellion and revolution is worse than slavery. In the gospel, Jesus asks who has to pay certain taxes sons or slaves, and the disciples answer accurately that it’s the slaves, but Jesus says it would be better at the moment to pay the tax not to cause offense (Mt. 17:24-27). In other words, if you can bear the tyranny, bide your time patiently. But elsewhere it says clearly that if we can get our freedom, we should try, but if we can’t, we should live as the Lord’s freemen as much as possible (1 Cor. 7:21-22). Seeking to serve our masters as Christ is not apathy, since we all have a Master in Heaven who judges justly (Eph. 6:5-9, 1 Pet. 2:18-23). Christ submitted to the greatest injustice in history, and God saw and vindicated Him in the resurrection. When Peter exhorts wives to seek to do their disobedient husbands good, he isn’t counseling apathy; he’s counseling subversive resistance. Try to win him over without a word by your godly and gracious conduct and beauty. That isn’t apathy; it’s overcoming evil with good. And sometimes you need to call the elders or the cops. Patiently doing good invites God’s vindication and blessing, sometimes it disarms and wins our enemies, but at the very least it puts us in a position to see most clearly what we can do next, what we can do now. The wrath of man does not work the righteousness of God (Js. 1:20). Faith in God works His righteousness. A log in your eye (a log of wrath, bitterness, and rage) is not a strong position to fight from. Jesus wants us to fight, but He wants us to fight clean, fight like He fights. And light is what drives back the darkness.
The central point is that personal grudges and angst are the origin of all evil tyranny. You can’t fight fire with fire. Returning evil for evil is not justice but flailing injustice. Returning evil for evil is joining the mob. Grudges and feuds drive every revolutionary mob, and those mobs always end up destroying themselves. All wrath, bitterness, and resentment must be banished from our hearts and words, while cultivating a godly hatred of all evil (Ps. 139:21-22). This perfect hatred also loves enemies and truly wants their good. If your hatred does not include love, it’s fleshly angst. God hates evil and loves to save sinners. We must learn to love and hate like God loves and hates. But this requires patience, grace, and wisdom.
Nothing here forbids Christians from exercising biblical justice in their assigned offices or appealing to authorities for redress. Call the cops, file the report, talk to your boss, talk to your teacher/parents, make the appeal, confront evil. Nothing here forbids Christians from practicing self-defense or just war or seeking the preservation and restoration of freedom and property through courts or laws. In fact, what Jesus says assumes the legitimacy of all those things. We are to overcome evil with good. Good what? Good families, good marriages, good hospitality, good business, good art, good churches, good neighborhoods, and good laws and civil governments. The point is that you cannot achieve a truly just and prosperous society with rage and bitterness in your heart. Start with God’s goodness in your heart.
Faithful parents need to practice this all day long: “Brethren, if a man be overtaken in a fault, ye which are spiritual, restore such an one in the spirit of meekness; considering thyself, lest thou also be tempted” (Gal. 6:1). We are required to try to restore those who are overtaken in faults. But we are required to do so in a spirit of meekness, a spirit of self-control, considering ourselves, lest we fall into some evil. So, your options are not flying off the handle or passive apathy. No, parental obedience requires calm, measured, cheerful firmness. And so we must be in every area of life, not taking various insults and wrongs against us personally. If you take what your children do/say personally, you will not see clearly or understand what they really need.
All earthly, human justice is at best an approximation of heavenly/divine justice (an approximation we are required to long for and work for): we are about to pray together: “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” But if you demand perfect justice in this world now/immediately, you will be constantly disappointed and angry (and thereby become part of the problem). Everyone will let you down, and despite your longing for justice, you will be letting other down and doing harm to them.
This is why the Cross of Jesus Christ is central to all of this: the Cross of Jesus is the only fully perfect display of justice in the history of the world. In it the justice of God was/is displayed from faith to faith (Rom. 1:17). This means it is received by faith and lived out by faith.
The just live by faith, both because we are justified by faith from all of our own sins and that gives us great peace and patience. Jesus was struck in our place for all our wrathful vengeance. God’s perfect justice crushed Jesus instead of us. Faith in that justice of God in Christ is what allows us to work hard for true justice in this world now while resting in God’s perfect timing to work it all out.