“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ 39 But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.”
DRINK IT IN:
Are you one of millions who are confused by this passage? Doesn’t this passage seem to say, just be a punching bag? This Scripture verse and the next two, in my opinion, have been misunderstood for way too long. I hope after you read this, you will have total clarity on what Jesus meant and your new understanding of it will help you advance the strengths of the Kingdom of Heaven.
“Eye for an eye, and tooth for tooth.” What an easy passage. What an easy law to understand. Call me sick, but I often wish this Old Testament Law were still in affect. If you are a person of peace and innocence, you would never have to worry about this law. If something bad happened to you, it would have been very clear what to do about it. This passage would have caused anyone to strive to avoid/resist an evil person. For if evil were done to you, you could return evil back to the person and it be perfectly acceptable. I don’t know about you, but personally, I have no desire to injure someone’s eye or remove someone’s tooth…even if it happened to me first. This fact would cause me to resist an evil person. To resist an evil person is to run from them, to avoid them and completely stay away from them. To do this I would have to always be alert and in avoidance mode. It would cause me to fear evil people. I don’t necessarily fear having my tooth knocked out or eye injured, although it would be horrible, but what I don’t like about this law is that if it happens to me, I’m supposed to do the same back to the person. I would resist an evil person for fear of having to pluck out his eye or knock out his tooth. To resist an evil person is the same as resisting chocolate. To resist is to completely say no. To keep it out of my life. To resist is to not take a bite, or eat the whole chocolate bar. Resist, means to stay away from. Agree?
Enter Jesus and the New Testament times.
Jesus walks onto the scene and says, “Do NOT resist an evil person.” Don’t avoid them, don’t run from them, and do not fear them. Do not resist an evil person, is best understood when compared to this phrase; do not resist a chocolate bar.
So what is Jesus saying when He says, “Do not resist an evil person?” I think to fully understand what Jesus is saying here we have to read some other things that He said, or the Bible says.
I think I have to mention Deuteronomy 32:35(NLT) immediately. I want to preface everything I am about to write with this passage. “I will take revenge; I will pay them back.” The “I” is God, not us. Revenge is God’s business, not mankind’s. Verse 36 goes on to say, “Indeed the Lord will give justice to His people.” Another passage that is good to preface what I’m about to write is Proverbs 19:11 (NLT) “Sensible people control their temper; they earn respect by overlooking wrongs.” Alright, a couple more verses like this to reinforce the powerful message of kindness and love and respect from the Bible. Romans 12:14 (NLT) “Bless those who persecute you. Don’t curse them; pray that God will bless them.” Over and over in the Bible, we can read passages that reiterate to not return evil for evil. We will be known by our love. So, in what I’m about to write, please understand that we are to be a daily demonstration of Jesus Christ. Jesus bore the fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness and self-control on a daily basis, everyday of His life. We are to do the same. Revenge belongs to God.
Nowhere in Scripture are we taught that Christians are to be a walking mat. We are not told to take another beating. I think Matthew 5:38-39 has been taught incorrectly way too much and thus has been misunderstood for a long time. Read the passage again from Jesus, “But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.”
At its simplest reading, it seems to read as if Jesus is telling us to stay around evil people and if they beat us, turn the other cheek, ignore it, and take another beating from the other side. If you are a Christian wife, just stick around your evil husband as he beats you and take another one for the Gipper, because you might save the soul of your husband someday….just cover the bruises with make up! (I wish there were a font for cynicism and sarcasm.)
Many people think that we are supposed to act just like Jesus as He was being crucified. I agree that we should, if we are being crucified. When was the last time you witnessed a Christian being crucified? Are you in danger of being crucified today? If you are, then please behave just like Jesus. He didn’t resist the evil that was happening to Him. He forgave while He was on the cross. He took the beating…over…and over…and over….and over. Please understand something here. This is what Jesus was born for. He was born to be the sacrificial lamb that was slaughtered so that all of mankind’s sins could be forgiven. This is not something you can duplicate or replicate. We can replicate Jesus’ forgiveness. We can replicate His love for others. We can replicate His holy behavior. However, what happened to Jesus on the cross and the fact that He allowed it to happen to Him, is not a standard of how we should live our lives as we live amongst evil in a dark world. Jesus is not asking you to lay down your cross and be crucified for the sins of the evil person you are not resisting. Only Jesus was required to lay down His cross and lay down on it for the Father. Jesus is asking you TAKE UP your cross and carry it. He laid down His Cross and was mutilated and annihilated on it. You are to TAKE UP your cross and carry it. Let me explain how this is different and how Matthew 5:38-39 should empower you to hold your head high and walk right into the mix of darkness and evil and continue to shine like a bright light.
What does Jesus really mean when He says things like, “Don’t resist an evil person”…and…”if you get struck, turn the other cheek?”
Please be patient with, me as I preface what I’m about to write, with two more very important teachings of Scripture, especially for this specific passage, and thus be able to fully understand what Jesus means by this turn the other cheek stuff.
The first passage is one Jesus spoke and is recorded in Matthew 10:16.(NLT) I wrote about this specific passage in HYDRATE — WINNING FROM THE INSIDE 14 (Mt.5:25-26) “Before Court.” I will write more about it when I get to this exact teaching of Jesus as I follow the order of Jesus’ teaching in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
The passage Jesus spoke says this, “Be as shrewd as snakes and harmless as doves.” Jesus told us to behave this way when we are around evil.
The second passage is one that Paul wrote in Romans 12:21. (NLT) “Don’t let evil conquer you, but conquer evil by doing good.”
Can you see how it could be seen as a contradiction when you compare Romans 12:21 with Jesus’ total submission and passivity on the cross? He just let them kill Him. He was conquered by evil. (Some could argue that He knew He would be raised from the dead in 3 days and nights. I think that is a fair argument, but, the reality is that Jesus’ purpose was to be killed so as to pay for all the sins we’ve committed. Nothing we do or should do can be compared to that, ever.) Jesus came to earth to be conquered and killed. Thank God that He rose from the grave, but when His heart beat its last and we see the water and blood come out of his chest when the Roman guard pierces him with a spear….Jesus was officially conquered. Dead.
So, how do we measure and compare these two passages; “Don’t let evil conquer you, but conquer evil by doing good,’ and “be as shrewd as a snake and harmless as a dove,” with “Don’t resist an evil person, if someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek?” It seems that some actions of Christians that are backed up with this passage seem to tell us to be conquered by evil. But Jesus is really saying…do not let evil conquer you. In fact, conquer evil! I love that. Conquer evil by doing good.
These three passages seem to cause contradiction. We know that the Bible does not have any contradictions. If the Bible doesn’t have any contradictions, but we understand this as a contradiction, then the Bible is not wrong, our understanding of the passage is wrong.
Let’s correct our misunderstanding.
I wish I could stand before you right now and demonstrate this passage to you instead of try to explain it through writing. But here is my best effort.
If you look really carefully at Matthew 5:38-39, you will notice that Jesus is very specific about which cheek you get struck on. It is specifically written, “If someone strikes you on the RIGHT cheek.” If Jesus wanted us to just keep getting struck and to be a walking mat for an evil person, then He would have very simply stated, If someone strikes you, turn the other cheek. He didn’t say this. He said, “If someone strikes you on the RIGHT cheek, turn to them the other (left) cheek.”
This paints a very clear picture for us, especially when we understand some basic Hebrew/Jewish culture practices that coincide with this passage.
I have had the privilege of traveling to the Holy Lands many times and my plan is to go back every 2 years, taking a group of 50 or less each time. If you are ever interested, please contact me and I’ll get your name on the list for the next trip. When I travel to this incredible place I always make it a point to find an elderly person who is has always been Jewish and I speak with them about ideas I have about the Bible. I am convinced, that having a strong understanding of ancient Hebrew culture, is the best way to understand what Jesus taught in the Scriptures. I am shocked at how Christians think of Jesus and try to understand what Jesus taught by using their own cultures to understand it. Many Christians are guilty of thinking that Jesus’ teachings are based off of the the culture they live in today. For instance, I think many Christians that live in America think that Jesus is white skinned and thinks with western culture presuppositions. However, Jesus was raised in a Jewish home, where He would have learned the Jewish Culture and followed it very seriously. Jesus’ skin would have been a dark olive tone and He would have been what the average Jewish man looked like in that day. Did you know that the average Jewish man in Jesus’ time was 5’4″ tall? The Old Testament says that there was nothing about Jesus’ physical appearance that made Him stand out from the average person. That’s all beside the point I want to teach here. My point, in all of what I just wrote, is that having an understanding of the Jewish Culture is the best way to understand what Jesus meant when He taught. I can, pretty confidently say, that if there is a passage in Scripture that is causing you confusion, then the confusion would probably end if you understood what is confusing you through a Jewish Culture and a Jewish understanding. The rest of this post is teaching Matthew 5:38-39 through the understanding of the Jewish culture and understanding of this passage.
Here are the details.
In the Jewish Culture your Right Hand is the hand of power, control and protection. Think with me about some things that Scripture records. The Bible references the Right hand of God. Jesus is seated at the right hand of the Father. The right hand of fellowship. The strong right hand of God. Right hand of God’s protection. I would guess that the creation of the word RIGHTeous is a derivative of the word Right. You get the idea? Should I say sorry to all the South-paws” out there!? LOL
Now, understanding the powerful right hand of God and how important this is to the Jewish people, here is something I learned from an elderly person in Jerusalem during one of my trips.
The people in the Bible times had a very different life than the ones we live. For a fun example, think with me about sewer systems and using the toilet. There are ancient toilets that still remain to this day and it is fun to see how they would have used the toilet back in those days. (I love weird stuff like that) What I’m about to write is not written to be weird or gross, but to help us all understand this teaching about turning the other cheek. In Jesus’ day, toilet paper was nonexistent, unlike in America today. Even today, my trips to South America and Africa have shown that toilet paper is still not readily available to a majority of the population around the world. So, in Jesus time, how did the people clean themselves after going to the bathroom? The farm boy in me wants to ask it like it is. How did they wipe their butts in Jesus’ day? In the Jewish culture, as long as someone wasn’t very poor, they would carry with them a stick with a natural sponge attached to it. This cleaning instrument would be kept under their robe at all times unless it was being used in the toilet room. After going to the bathroom, the person would use his LEFT hand to grip the cleaning instrument, dip it in the clean water in front of them and then clean themselves. I say all this to say that the left hand, in the Hebrew culture, was considered an unclean hand…for reasons you should now understand. It was considered very inappropriate and gross to use your left hand for anything that entailed public interaction. The left hand was for personal use only. Whether or not you think that is right or wrong is not the point. The point is…a Jewish person in Jesus’ time didn’t touch other people with his left hand in any way…ever.
Back to Jesus’ teaching about someone striking you on the right cheek. Question. If you know you do not use your left hand for public use at anytime, and at the same time you are going to strike somebody on the right cheek, what hand do you use, and how would that hand have to be angled to strike that right cheek accordingly? I have added a picture of me below to help you visualize and imitate this striking the right cheek stuff! Go for it. Strike away…just remember its really not me, don’t break your computer!
In the picture above, my right cheek is more readily available to be slapped. So, go ahead and slap my right cheek with your right hand. If you are like me, then when you imitated a slapping or striking pattern to strike my RIGHT cheek, it was awkward. UNLESS…you used the back side of your right hand. Try it again, but this time “back-hand” my right cheek? It works! Note this…when you struck “me” with the back side of your right hand, you actually gave me what is called a “smite.”
Now, back to Matthew 5:38-39. The actual word should not be translated strike, but SMITE. The word smite has many definitions linked to it. You can look it up yourself and see that there are many ways to smite somebody. To smite someone is another way of saying you are going to kill them, punch them, ridicule them, etc. Smite is not a word we use in our culture so much today, so most of the translations we have in our Bibles today use the word, strike, slap or other terms that are more culturally relevant. The use of these words may be more relevant to our current cultures, but they also make it very easy to misunderstand what Jesus is actually trying to say in this passage.
In one of my conversations with an elderly woman in Jerusalem, when I asked her about this passage, she explained to me that to be struck with the back of the right hand (smite) is the ultimate form of ridicule and discrimination. In the Jewish culture, when someone took the back of their right hand and gave you a smite across your right cheek, it was their way of saying they are above you and better than you. To receive a smite across the face was very demeaning and embarrassing. (I imagine a snobby person with their black leather gloves in their right hand, looking down over their designer glasses and smiting me with the gloves across my right cheek and face…very demeaning.) Do you get the idea?
So, go back to my picture above. Imagine, after you have given me a “smite” across my right cheek with the back of your right hand…and I did not “resist” you, but instead simply stood my ground with you and turned my left cheek to you, as if to say, “go ahead and smite my left cheek.”
Now, try something. Go ahead, and do the motion of giving me a smite, with the back of your right hand delivered to my OTHER (Left) cheek? You can’t do it without looking like an idiot. This fact, in your indignant anger, would force you, at this point, to do one of two things. One, you would walk away and yourself be humbled as I stood my ground against you. Or two, it would cause you to use your open right hand or with a closed fist to slap or punch me and therefore admit you are my equal.(More on this in a moment.) The whole point of a smite, is to show the person you are giving the smite to, that you are better than they are. So, if you struck me with your open right hand or closed fist, how would that make you admit that we are equals? Where do you think the sport of boxing comes from? In our boxing world when two men or women enter the competitive ring, you never see a lightweight going toe to toe with a heavy weight. No, always light weight vs. lightweight, or middleweight vs. middleweight. From the beginning of competitive boxing, two equals always got in the ring to determine who could outbox who. Boxing is with a closed fist for punching or in some cases open handed slaps between two equals. The elderly lady, I visited with in Jerusalem, told me that in the Hebrew culture, to slap or punch somebody is to admit that you are an equal with the person you are fighting. Smiting/back handing is a way to demonstrate dominance over the one being struck.
So, back to my picture above. If after your gave me a smite on the right cheek, I then turn the other cheek (left cheek) as if to say, “go ahead, try it again!” By doing this, I actually put you in a predicament of several factors. First, I am NOT resisting you, like Jesus commands in the passage. I am actually standing up to you. I am also obeying what Jesus said about being sly as a snake and innocent as a dove. If I turn my left cheek to you after you gave me a smite on my right cheek, I am strategically setting you up to admit that you are my equal, when your whole point of the smite was to demean me and demonstrate to the witnesses watching, that you think you are better than me. And third, I also obey the scripture of Romans 12:21 that says, conquer evil by doing good.
Do you get this?
After you smite me on the right cheek, I then turn to you my left cheek…in this moment, now answer the following questions…
In my position in front of you and with my left facial cheek exposed towards you…
Am I seen as a person of timidity?
Am I seen as a person of revenge?
Am I seen as a person who is weak?
Am I seen as a person who is just asking for another beating?
Am I seen as a person of patient endurance?
Am I seen as a person of strategy?
Am I seen as a person of strength?
Am I inspiring to those who are watching?
You see, when I turn that other cheek, the person who wants to strike me again is forced to make a decision. Slap me or punch me and demonstrate that you are my equal. I would be okay with that! Or walk away and demonstrate to the witnesses that they just got outsmarted, outwitted and outplayed.
You CONQUERED evil, by DOING good!
And, the whole time, they remained holy, pure, and an inspiration of what it means to be a follower of Jesus!
There’s more. The next verse following this turn the other cheek passage…does the same thing but in a court setting and while facing a lawsuit. If you like what you just read about turning the other cheek, the next two posts are of the same nature but about being taken to court, or being forced to carry something for someone.
As you go out and about in the world and undoubtedly will be confronted by different kind of evil remember to
Conquer evil by doing good!
Turn the other cheek and watch them squirm!
You will be known as a follower of Jesus Christ, and as having incredible patient strength, and self control!
That’s living like Jesus.