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The Kingdom Response to Personal Injustice (Matt 5:38-42)

The Kingdom Response to Personal Injustice

“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 anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.

Matthew 5:38-42

How should we respond towards personal injustice? How should we respond when people hurt and offend us? Scripture teaches that the Christian response must be very different from the world's.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Christ is teaching about the righteousness of kingdom citizens. He said in Matthew 5:20 that if your righteousness doesn’t surpass the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. Then Christ describes six misinterpretations of the Old Testament law by Israel’s teachers. He considered murder (Matt 5:21-26), adultery (Matt 5:27-30), divorce (Matt 5:31-32), and oaths (Matt 5:33-37). In Matthew 5:38-42, he considers the fifth misinterpretation of the law—“eye for eye” and next he’ll consider “hate your enemy” (Matt 5:43-48). The teaching of the Pharisees on all these subjects were incorrect. On each of these, they lessened the standard of God’s law. They did the same with the OT’s teaching on “eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.”

“Eye for eye and tooth for tooth” was a fundamental principle of OT civil law. It taught that the punishment must fit the crime. This principle was the basis of many ancient laws including the Code of Hammurabi, which was written over 100 years before the Mosaic law[1], and it is the basis of the legal system today. In Latin, it is called lex talionis; it is the same idea found in the expressions “tit for tat” or “quid pro quo.”[2] As with all the OT law, it represented God’s righteousness and was a good law. It was especially good because allowed for fairness in the administration of justice and it restrained man’s sinful nature. Typically, when somebody hurts us, we want more than an eye for eye. The selfish anger inside of us typically wants a face for an eye. We saw this in the story of the rape of Jacob’s daughter, Dinah, by a Hivite (Gen 34). When the brothers’ heard about this, instead of taking the man to court and seeking an equal punishment, they killed all the men from his village. They took much more than an eye for an eye. Blood feuds like this were not uncommon in the ancient world. Therefore, God’s law restrained sin.

Interpretation Question: How were the Jewish teachers of the law abusing the OT law, “Eye for eye and tooth for tooth”

“Eye for eye and tooth for tooth” was never to be judged and implemented by individuals alone. It was always meant to go before the court system. Exodus 21:22-25 says:

If people are fighting and 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.

The punishment for hurting this pregnant woman and potentially her baby had to be agreed upon by not only the husband but the court. The court would approve a punishment equal to the crime—eye for eye, tooth for tooth. It is worth noting that if the baby had died, the punishment would have been life for life. God reckoned the baby as an adult life, which disagrees with abortion laws in most countries.

The Pharisees applied the law of “eye for eye” not only to courts, but to personal relationships, which only justified the natural sin within the human heart. However, believers are not to be identified by obeying our sinful nature but our new nature. We are to live as citizens of heaven on earth. How then should we respond when others hurt us? Essentially, it could be summarized by simply saying, we must give up our rights. In the following verses, Christ describes four ways that we should give up our rights for wrongs done to us. These four examples probably have specific applications to being persecuted for our faith. In Matthew 5:10, Christ said, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” If we model the characteristics of the kingdom as seen in the Sermon on the Mount, we will be hated and persecuted by this world. And our response, on a personal level, should not be fighting for our rights—seeking an eye for an eye—but sacrificing our rights, even as Christ did on this earth, as he went to the cross.

The teachings in this passage are some of the most abused verses in Scripture. Some have used these verses to support pacifism—the belief that any violence, including war, is unjustifiable. This has led some believers to not join the military, serve as policemen, work in government, or even practice self-defense. This passage has even been used to promote lawlessness and anarchy. Are these applications correct? As we study this passage, we’ll consider four ways believers should respond to personal injustice.

Big Question: What rights must Christians be willing to give up as they serve Christ and respond towards wrongs done to them?

Christians Must Willingly Give Up Their Right to Retaliation

But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.

Matthew 5:39

Interpretation Question: Does “do not resist an evil person” mean that we should never resist evil or an evil person?

Some have said that “Do not resist an evil person” means that Christians should not resist evil at all in society—again not allowing a Christian to serve in the military or the justice system. However, when this verse is compared with other Scriptures, we know that this a wrong interpretation. Even in this section of the Sermon on the Mount, Christ is confronting the Pharisees’ wrong teachings on the law. He is resisting evil. In John 2, Christ went into the temple, flipped tables, and ran the people out who were cheating the worshipers. Most of the epistles are Christ’s apostles resisting evil and evil people, as they wrote to correct false teaching and false teachers. In fact, Christ commanded believers to resist evil among fellow church members. In Matthew 18:15-17, he said when someone is in sin, we should confront him first one on one, then with two or three others, if he still won’t repent, it should be brought before the church. And if the person still clings to his sin, he should be removed from the congregation. To obey Christ, Christians must, in fact, resist evil. It’s part of their call as salt and light in the world. They are to expose and remove darkness.

To further support the need to resist evil people, Romans 13:1-7 says that God instituted government for that very purpose—to punish wrong doers and reward those who do good. Romans 13:4 says:

For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.

Though this passage in the Sermon on the Mount is often used to promote pacifism—the belief that all violence, including war, is unjustifiable. That interpretation contradicts the rest of Scripture. Throughout the OT, God called nations and court systems to punish others for their sins. Even Israel was sent to Canaan for a holy war to bring God’s judgment on a wicked people. And the NT teaches that governments and nations still play that role today. Because of this, there is something that theologians calls a “just war.” For example, when a nation is committing genocide by wiping out people groups or minorities, it is just to stop them, even if violence is necessary. It is just and merciful. Therefore, we should commonly pray for our leaders, as they seek to bring peace nationally and throughout the world (1 Timothy 2:1-4), and we should consider whether God is calling us to serve among them. God is still calling Josephs, Joshuas, Moseses, Davids, and Daniels to serve in government—to protect people, bless them, and at times, to wisely discern and execute justice.

Therefore, Christ is not commanding believers to never resist an evil person, and he certainly is not forbidding the government and court system from executing justice. This is made clear by the next phrase: “If somebody slaps you on the right cheek, give them the other cheek as well.” Christ was forbidding personal retaliation, not civil justice. He was dealing with how we respond when evil is committed against us personally. In that case, we should give up our right to retaliate and respond gently. His teaching doesn’t mean we should never call the police or seek justice from an authority. (We’ll talk more about this later). It means it is not our right to exact justice.

Interpretation Question: Does Christ’s command to turn the other cheek mean that we should never defend ourselves if somebody tries to physically assault us?

No, that doesn’t seem to be the culturally meaning of his command. When Christ refers to being slapped on the right cheek, he is not referring to being physically attacked. He refers to being slapped with the back of the right hand (as most people are right handed), which was culturally considered a deep insult. According to rabbinical law, being slapped with the back hand was twice more offensive than being slapped with an open hand.[3] It was like being called a nothing and, in context, it probably referred to being called a heretic.[4] Again, Christ is probably referring to being persecuted for the faith, as demonstrated by Matthew 5:10-12. Following Christ often led to persecution. A Christian might have been slapped and shamed by family, friends, or even a priest for turning from Judaism to Christianity.

Christ says that his followers should not respond evil for evil. We should not slap back or try to hurt people when they insult us. Instead we should willingly take the suffering and give up our right to retaliation.

Certainly, we saw this in the life of Christ. When others were being cheated in the temple, he was like a lion. He fought for their rights and the honor of God. He resisted evil, as we are also called to (Eph 5:11). But when the Pharisees trumped up people to lie about Christ before the court before he was sent to the cross, he was like a lamb. He said nothing (cf. Mk 14:55-61). He allowed God to defend him. Christians must do both—fight for others’ rights and, at the same time, in gentleness, be willing to give up our right to retaliation.

First Peter 2:20-23 says:

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.

When persecuted for our faith or for other reasons, believers must willingly endure suffering. Now, this does not forbid us from going to the police or the court, but it forbids us from taking judgment into our own hands. God has instituted the government, the law system, and authorities in general for those reasons. It is not our place to take vengeance. We see this with Paul when the Jews were trying to kill him while he was imprisoned in Caesarea, he appealed to Caesar—the highest court in the land (Acts 25). He used the justice system. We have that right as well.

How do you respond when others slap or insult you? Christ said kingdom citizens will give up their rights for personal retaliation. This supernatural character marks us as kingdom citizens in this world. We willingly suffer personal assaults in order love God and others more than ourselves.

How do you respond when personally insulted? Does your response reveal your kingdom citizenship or your earthly citizenship?

Application Question: Why is it so hard to give up our right to personal retaliation? Should believers always turn the other cheek when insulted? If not, why not, and how should we discern when to pursue justice? If possible, describe a time when you decided to turn the other cheek and the results.

Christians Must Willingly Give Up Their Right to Possessions

And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well.

Matthew 5:40

Interpretation Question: What was Christ referring to when talking about being sued for a shirt and offering one’s coat as well?

The second right believers must be willing to relinquish for Christ is that of possessions. When Christ referred to being sued for a shirt, he was referring to a tunic which was more like an ancient suit. A person would typically own multiple tunics. The coat, however, was very expensive and people typically own one.[5] Often, they were used as blankets to keep people warm at night and in the winter.

Would somebody every sue another for his clothes? In those times, when people could not compensate with money, sometimes they would pay with clothing. In court, people could be sued for the very clothes on their body, especially if they didn’t have other valuables. However, according to the Mosaic law, people couldn’t be sued for their coats. Keeping one’s coat was an inalienable right. It was considered inhumane to take a person’s coat. How would they stay warm at night or in the winter? If it was taken as a pledge, it had to be returned by the evening (cf. Deut 24:12-14). Exodus 22:26-27 says:

If you take your neighbor’s cloak as a pledge, return it by sunset, because that cloak is the only covering your neighbor has. What else can they sleep in? When they cry out to me, I will hear, for I am compassionate.

Again, though this applies to being sued over possessions generally, it has specific reference to the persecution of Christians. Early Christians commonly experienced the loss of their property over their beliefs. Hebrews 10:32-35 says,

Remember those earlier days after you had received the light, when you endured in a great conflict full of suffering. Sometimes you were publicly exposed to insult and persecution; at other times you stood side by side with those who were so treated. You suffered along with those in prison and joyfully accepted the confiscation of your property, because you knew that you yourselves had better and lasting possessions. So do not throw away your confidence; it will be richly rewarded.

They joyfully accepted the confiscation of their property. Was is theirs? Absolutely. But, as they served Christ, they relinquished their rights to their possessions and didn’t fight over them. And so must we. Our possessions are to be held with an open hand before the Lord. This will seem very difficult to those who have zealously strived to accumulate things: their books, electronics, homes, and cars. However, Scripture teaches that the whole earth is the Lord’s (Ps 24:1). We don’t own anything. We are just stewards of the Lord’s resources. In fact, in Matthew 6:19-21, Christ calls us to not store up riches on the earth but to practice simplicity, since riches have a tendency to steal our hearts. Also, in 1 Timothy 6:6-8, Paul taught that we should learn to be content with food and covering. If we have understood and practiced these principles with our possessions, it will be much easier to relinquish them, if the Lord calls us to, and in love for those who persecute us.

We should also note that even though one had a legal right to keep his coat, in this case, he was not to avail himself of that right. In personal relationships, we should never seek vengeance, we should leave it to God or seek the authorities. But at times, it is God’s will for us to not even insist on legal rights. First Peter 4:8 says, “love covers a multitude of sins.” In love, many times we should not only forgive but also not insist on justice. In 1 Corinthians 6, the members of the church were suing one another, and Paul sharply rebukes them by saying: “The very fact that you have lawsuits among you means you have been completely defeated already. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be cheated?” (v. 7). He says why not just accept being wronged. Essentially, he says why not love them and Christ more than your personal rights. This is the Christian way, and so we must prayerfully consider this in situations where our legal rights are violated.

Are you willing to let go of your possessions out of devotion to Christ and love for those who seek to harm you?

Application Question: Why is so hard to give up our rights to our possessions? Why should we be willing to give them up even to someone who harms us?

Christians Must Willingly Give Up Their Right to Personal Time

If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles.

Matthew 5:41

The next example Christ offers considers our right to our time. Romans soldiers had legal rights to make a civilian carry their luggage up to one Roman mile, which was slightly less than a mile today. However, they could not make civilians carry the luggage longer than that.[6] This is probably what happened with Simon of Cyrene when he was forced to carry Jesus’ cross (Matt 27:32). The Jews hated such impositions. When Christ said this, he separated himself from the zealots and others who wanted to overthrow the government because of such infractions. Though we may not have direct applications to this in our society, there are certainly indirect applications. James Boice shares:

To us that means that we are not to be resentful when people call us on the telephone and take up valuable time—just because they do not have anything to do. And we are not to be surly when we are given added work at the office, are saddled with someone else’s work, or are sent out for coffee when we are in the middle of something we think important. We are to do it cheerfully and as unto the Lord.[7]

How do you respond when someone imposes on your time and energy? Are you gracious? Do you recognize that your time and energy are the Lord’s and he can use them, as he sees fit? Do you trust God’s sovereignty in the interruptions of the day—including disruptions and impositions by those who are rude and disrespectful, like a difficult boss or family member? Our time is not ours. It is the Lord’s, and we must use it even to serve those who hurt and harm us. This is God’s method of saving the lost and bringing repentance in the lives of the redeemed.

Are you offering your time to the Lord? Are you willing to sacrifice it for the benefit of others, even the rude and unthankful? Sacrifice of time and energy for others, including the unthankful, will mark kingdom citizens in this world? Does it mark you?

Application Question: Why is giving up our time for others so difficult, especially when they are ungrateful? How can we prepare for unplanned interruptions and handle them graciously? Describe a time you willingly sacrificed time and energy for someone who was rude and/or ungrateful.

Christians Must Willingly Give Up Their Right to Personal Money

Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.

Matthew 5:42

Finally, we must not only sacrifice our rights to retaliate, to our own possessions, and to our time, we also must give up our rights to our money. Again, this is very difficult to hear, as money is very hard to earn and even harder to keep. We naturally feel that since we earned our money, it is not right for anybody else to have it. We often struggle with the government taking so much of our money. In our hearts, we think, “I earned this! Why are they taking it?” With the poor, we think, “Why don’t they work for their own money!?” But if we are followers of Christ, our money is the Lord’s, and we are to be extremely generous with it.

Christ said to give to the one who asks and to not turn away the one who wants to borrow. Now this, maybe more than the other statements, seems impossible to follow. If we give to everyone who asks, then we’ll have no money. How can this be done? Well, first Christ is not talking about giving to those who do not have legitimate needs or who would use the money in harmful ways like purchasing alcohol. Sometimes giving to others will actually hurt them. There is a need for discernment. In 2 Thessalonians 3, there were people in the church not working to provide for their needs who were waiting on the coming of Christ. In order to do this, they began to depend on the generosity of the other church members. However, Paul said if people do not work, they shouldn’t eat (v. 10). The church was called to not support these errant members but to warn and challenge them in love (v. 15). There is a need for discernment—we certainly shouldn’t give money to every request.

With that said, sometimes it is very hard, if not impossible, to discern if the needs are legitimate. Certainly, we must try our best. But when it is impossible, it has been said that it is better, “to help a score of fraudulent beggars than to risk turning away one man in real need.”[8] There is wisdom in this saying that believers should heed.

In general, our use of money is a tremendous indicator of our spiritual health. It reveals what we love. Do we love ourselves more than God and others? First John 3:17-18 says,

If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.

John is giving tests of true salvation (according to his statement in 1 John 5:13). One of these tests is whether we are generous to needy believers. If not, do we really love God? Is his love truly abiding in us? The implied answer is no. True salvation will change our relationship to God, others, and even our money. Others will be more important than our money. Christ said that people will know that we are his disciples by the way that we love one another (referring to other believers) (John 13:35).

Does the way that we use our money and other resources demonstrate that we are true believers? Are we sacrificially loving others with our money?

Now with that said, we are also commanded to care for our family. Paul said if we don’t care for our family, we are worse than an infidel (1 Tim 5:8). We practice our faith by first caring for our families, but we also practice it by loving others sacrificially. Ephesians 4:28 says, “Anyone who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with their own hands, that they may have something to share with those in need.” Believers should work to not only provide for themselves and their family but to help others in need.

In following Christ, are you giving up your rights to your finances? Listen, Christ offers the best retirement plan that anyone can ask for: “Seek first the kingdom of heaven and his righteousness and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matt 6:33). He taught “give and it shall be given unto you” (Lk 6:38). And, Paul said this in 2 Corinthians 9:6-9:

Remember this: Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously. Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to bless you abundantly, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work. As it is written: “They have freely scattered their gifts to the poor; their righteousness endures forever.”

There are many promises given to those who are generous givers: God promises to bless givers with all their needs and with tremendous open doors for good works. As they faithfully give, God will provide their needs and expand their ministries.

Have you given up your rights to your money? Are you using your money to bless those in need, including those who harm you? Romans 12: “‘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.” In order to do this, we must be willing to use our money to bless the unlovable. When we do this generously and joyfully, God will us.

Is your money the Lord’s—for him to use to bless others as he wills? Or is your money solely yours?

Application Question: What makes Jesus’ teaching about giving money to whoever asks so difficult? How can we practice this kind of generosity? What are some probing questions to ask ourselves for discerning when to give and when not to?

General Applications

1. In responding to personal injustice, we must remember that as followers of Christ, we are called to take up our cross (Luke 14:27)—meaning give up our rights.

Christ was just and deserved no punishment, but he gave up his rights and entrusted them to God. In the same way, we must give up our rights as we serve others and at times experience injustice. We must daily take up our crosses as we follow our Lord. Our lives should not be worldly—consumed with our right to retaliation, possessions, time, and money. Our primary duty and right is to sacrificially love God and others, which at times includes bearing the insults and pain caused by others.

In Luke 14:27, Christ said, “And whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” The life of the cross is proof that we are disciples, and therefore saved. Have you given up your rights? Are you carrying your cross by dying to your rights?

2. In responding to personal injustice, we must remember that the ability to give up our rights is supernatural—given through the Spirit of God.

As believers, we still have a flesh that wants to fight for our rights—it desires to hold grudges and seek revenge. However, as we live a life of the Spirit by obeying God and abiding in him, the fruits of the Spirit are born in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, perseverance, goodness, etc. (Gal 5:22, 23). Therefore, we must repent when we walk in the flesh, we must pray for grace to love those who are unlovely and give up our rights to retaliation. As we draw near Christ through prayer, time in the Word, fellowship, and obedience, he empowers us to live like him. Galatians 5:16 says to walk in the Spirit, and we will not fulfill the lusts of the flesh.

3. In responding to personal injustice, we must remember that love is the primary way we minister to those who hurt us, and God is the one who pursues justice.

Romans 12:17-21 says:

Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” n 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.

God will bring vengeance; we should bring love. Now certainly, when God places us in positions of authority such as a parent or boss, we must, as his representatives, bring discipline in those positions. But in that discipline, we must remember mercy and seek to act in a way that is fair and God-honoring.

4. In responding to personal injustice, we must remember that the life of the cross is a rewarded life.

In Matthew 5:5, Christ said, “Blessed are the meek for they will inherit the earth.” Though we don’t fight for our rights now but, instead, choose to sacrifice and serve others; one day everything will be given to us. Though, as Christians, we sacrifice much of what the world pursues and fights for, we will one day be rewarded eternally. It will all be worth it in the end. Great will the reward of faithful believers be in heaven.

Does your life bear the marks of kingdom citizens—willing to lovingly bear the burden and pain from others—or citizens of this world—consumed with your personal rights and comfort?

Application Question: What other applications did you take from Jesus’ teaching on “eye for eye” and our need to give up our rights in love for God and others?


Consider Kent Hughes inspiring thoughts on this passage:

Jesus changes our lives! We no longer consider it our duty to get even. “Eye for eye, tooth for tooth” is fine for the court, but not for our relation to others—even our enemies. Thanks to Jesus, we have let go of our legalistic obsession with fairness. We are glad that Jesus was not fair with us, for if we were to have gotten what was coming to us, it would not have been good. As Jesus’ followers we give ourselves to the highest welfare of others, even our enemies. We put up with the sins and insults of others for Christ’s sake and theirs. Though hurt many times before, we refuse to withdraw into the shell of self. We do not run from hurt. We appear weak, but we are strong, for only the most powerful can live a life like this. But the power is not ours, but Christ’s. Everything comes from Christ.[9]

How should Christians response to personal injustice?

  1. Christians Must Willingly Give Up Their Right to Retaliation

  2. Christians Must Willingly Give Up Their Right to Possessions

  3. Christians Must Willingly Give Up Their Right to Personal Time

  4. Christians Must Willingly Give Up Their Right to Personal Money

[1] MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1985). Matthew (pp. 329–330). Chicago: Moody Press.

[2] MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1985). Matthew (pp. 329–330). Chicago: Moody Press.

[3] Hughes, R. K. (2001). The sermon on the mount: the message of the kingdom (p. 133). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.

[4] Hughes, R. K. (2001). The sermon on the mount: the message of the kingdom (p. 133). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.

[5] Boice, J. M. (2002). The Sermon on the Mount: an expositional commentary (pp. 137–138). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.

[6] MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1985). Matthew (pp. 334–335). Chicago: Moody Press.

[7] Boice, J. M. (2002). The Sermon on the Mount: an expositional commentary (p. 138). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.

[8] MacDonald, W. (1995). Believer’s Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments. (A. Farstad, Ed.) (pp. 1222–1223). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.

[9] Hughes, R. K. (2001). The sermon on the mount: the message of the kingdom (pp. 136–137). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.

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