The Sermon on the Mount: Revenge

Reading Assignment:

Matthew 5:38-42

Did you understand what you read?

  1. Where can this quotation be found in the Old Testament? (Hint: It appears several times.)
  2. Look at the context of the passages you found.
    1. What is the meaning of the phrase as used?
    2. Who was to use this advice?
    3. When was this advice supposed to be applied?
  3. When someone wrongly demands something of us, why should we give him more than he demanded?

The Sermon on the Mount: Revenge

You Have Heard It Said

The quotation given is: “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” The phrase appears three times in the Old Testament. In each case, the phrase was given as a sentencing guideline to a judge after a guilty verdict had been reached. In each case, it was just a portion of a much longer statement.

Exodus 21:22-25: If two men are involved in a fight and a pregnant woman somehow becomes injured during that fight so that her child is born prematurely, then the man who injured her is to be punished in a manner equal to the permanent damage done to the child or the mother. Thus, if the child is stillborn, the man will lose his life. If the child is born blind, the man will lose his eyesight. If the mother’s foot is injured, the man will receive a similar injury to his foot. If no permanent harm is caused, then the woman’s husband can request a fine and the judge can impose it as he sees it being fair.

As a side note, this is a particularly interesting passage in regard to abortion as it shows that God sees an unborn child equal to an adult.

Leviticus 24:17-22: A man guilty of injuring another would be punished by receiving the same injury to himself. If the injury is to property, the man must replace the damaged item or animal.

Deuteronomy 19:16-21: If a person lies in court and is discovered, he would receive the punishment the accused person would have received if his lie had been believed. Thus a lie during a murder trial would earn the liar the death penalty. A lie during a trial concerning an injury would gain the liar a similar injury. God warns the judges that they are not to soften the punishment out of pity for the liar.

In none of these cases is there a mention of personal retaliation. Only a judge was to hand down these punishments after carefully determining who was the guilty party. The punishments were a sentencing guideline so that the punishment fitted the crime.

But I Say to You

It appears from Jesus’ comments that the Jews had applied these guidelines to their individual lives. If someone punched them, they felt justified in punching back – so long as they didn’t exceed what the other person was attempting to do to them.

Jesus taught that rather than returning the evil done to us, we should return good instead. Luke’s account shows that this is the first application of the concept of loving your enemies. You treat people as you want people to treat you (Luke 6:31).

Followers of Christ are not to resist a wicked person; or more literally from the Greek, a Christian is not to stand against an evil person. A. T. Robertson, in his Word Pictures of the New Testament, argues that it would be better translated as a Christian not standing against the evil deed being done to him. Such makes sense, for how else is the Christian to resist Satan and his followers (James 4:7)?

When cursed, a Christian should pray for the one mistreating him. If struck, he should be prepared to take another blow. It doesn’t mean he cannot protest what is being done, as Jesus himself demonstrated in John 18:22-23 and by Paul in Acts 23:2-3. It is not that a person is inviting further injury, but prepared to take it rather than retaliate. A child of God does not strike back. If it was wrong to be hit, it remains wrong to hit another.

When a person uses the courts against you to take your personal property, give more than is demanded of you. A person’s cloak is more valuable than his tunic. Under the Old Law, a person’s cloak could not be taken away from him (Exodus 22:26-27). “The idea therefore is, "Be ready to give up even that which by law can not be taken" (Mansel)” [The Four-Fold Gospel]. Jesus stated that whatever is taken away is not to be demanded back.

Under Roman law at the time, a solider on the march could ask any bystander to carry his pack, but he could not compel him to go more than one mile. Government officials could “enlist” the help of anyone in the aid of their work, such as telling a person to deliver a message no matter how inconvenient it may be for the person. It is demonstrated in what happened to Simon of Cyrene who was enlisted to carry Jesus’ cross (Matthew 27:32). Though the law can be viewed as unjust, Jesus states his followers should be willing to go beyond what is demanded of them.

When demands are placed on us, we are to be willing to give what is needed.

In each example, the personal injury might be annoying and insulting, but none are truly major. Care should be taken not to over apply the principle given. The topic is taking personal vengeance for personal slights and harm. Jesus is not talking about defending yourself or others from a robber or a murderer, but about people who don’t like you doing things to irritate you or cause you minor harm.

Old Testament Teachings on Revenge

God has always forbidden personal vengeance. “You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the children of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD” (Leviticus 19:18). Instead, an Israelite was expected to let those in authority handle problems, such as God Himself (Proverbs 20:22). The very application of returning the same harm done to a person is specifically forbidden. “Do not say, 'I will do to him just as he has done to me; I will render to the man according to his work'” (Proverbs 24:29).

God expected the Israelites to return good for evil done to them. “If you meet your enemy's ox or his donkey going astray, you shall surely bring it back to him again. If you see the donkey of one who hates you lying under its burden, and you would refrain from helping it, you shall surely help him with it” (Exodus 23:4-5). The statement found in Proverbs 25:21-22 is the foundation for Paul’s teaching on revenge in Romans 12.

The concept of giving the other check to persecutors is found in Isaiah 50:6-9 and Lamentations 3:25-31. A person can survive ill-treatment knowing God stands on his side.

The Old Law also taught the Israelites to be generous to the poor and downtrodden (Deuteronomy 15:7-11; Job 31:16-20; Psalm 112:5-9; Proverbs 19:17; Isaiah 58:6-12). “Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due, when it is in the power of your hand to do so” (Proverbs 3:27).

New Testament Teachings on Revenge

The apostles continued the teaching that personal vengeance is not to be sought (Romans 12:17-21). “See that no one renders evil for evil to anyone, but always pursue what is good both for yourselves and for all” (I Thessalonians 5:15; see also I Peter 3:9).

Christians are warned that they will be subjected to persecution from others (I Peter 4:14; Romans 8:35-39). And Jesus is our example in how we ought to endure (I Peter 2:23).

Governments and their laws ought to be respected (Romans 13:1-8) and even prayed for (I Timothy 2:1-2). Notice that there is not a qualification for only good governments. These instructions were given to Christians living under the Roman government, which would soon be killing God’s people.

Rather than insisting on personal justice, Paul recommended that sometimes it is better to accept being defrauded than to bring quarrels before secular courts (I Corinthians 6:7-8).

Generosity to the poor and downtrodden is advocated in many passages (Luke 11:41; 14:12-14; James 1:27; I John 3:16-18).


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