Maybe you have seen the bumper sticker around that says: “An eye for an eye: The Bible says it and I believe it!” I remember seeing one a while back and thinking there is a possibility this person should read Scripture a bit more before posting it on their car. Yes, it is correct the Bible says these words. They are recorded in four places in the Bible. They occur in Exodus 21:24, Leviticus 24:20, Deuteronomy 19:21 and Matthew 5:38, but is this really read correctly from a bumper sticker? Does it tell us that every time someone harms us we must do the same to them? Does it conjure up the correct idea in our minds that is accurately supported by Scripture?
We turn to Matthew 5:38-39, and we read Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount to help answer our questions. “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” Wait. . . What? How than can the justice that God instituted here on the earth occur? Is Jesus instructing us to stand idle while the widows and children are being raped and killed? Must I watch a man being beheaded simply because he is a Christian, and not take action to save his life? Can I not defend the innocent from the evil if I desire to live in line with Jesus’ words, and live with Him as Lord of my life? All of these questions might have popped into your mind.
There is a point that we need to observe here, and observe it well. Jesus is taking Scripture out of context. . . intentionally. Yes, Jesus is God, and when He speaks it is Scripture and I am not saying that He is making a mistake. I cannot rebuke my Creator. Nonetheless, He is taking a small section of Scripture and citing it all by itself. He even adds the point, as He has before, “you have heard that it was said.” What Jesus is doing here is showing that people of that day were only looking at the part of Scripture that they liked. He was showing that they were taking it out of context.
So what exactly is the context of this statement? Let’s enter the Old Testament and take a look around. In Exodus 21 the following scenario is given in the Law. If men got together to beat a pregnant woman, and if her or the babies were injured than these evil men were to receive the “eye for an eye” and the “tooth for a tooth” punishment. In my opinion, this passage speaks more towards abortion in our culture, than the idea conjured up by our bumper sticker. The passage elevates the child to a position of full humanity, and displays the preciousness of an innocent child. In Leviticus 24, also the Law, we see the passage speaking about a man “smiting” another man and quite literally “causing all his soul to die.” The next verse speaks about taking the life of an animal and the necessity to replace it. Finally, if a man injured his neighbor then the eye for an eye thing comes about. This passage deals with social justice because through implicit malice the man injured or killed “his neighbor.” This might be understood as pretty close to the bumper sticker idea. Deuteronomy 19 records the final Old Testament reference to this passage. It begins in verse 15, ends in verse 21, and speaks to witnesses in a judicial trial. A person was not to be convicted on the testimony of one witness, but, specifically, this passage speaks about a malicious witness. If a witness maliciously tries to mislead the court, they should receive the same punishment they were seeking the innocent party to receive through their lies. The text speaks to the reason as well. Deuteronomy 19:19-21 says: “then you shall do to him as he had meant to do to his brother. So you shall purge the evil from your midst. And the rest shall hear and fear, and shall never again commit any such evil among you. Your eye shall not pity. It shall be life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.”
As we look at these verses and think about our bumper sticker, we must remember that Jesus is interpreting these passages in the Old Testament. He is not changing them, but showing how some interpretations have missed the boat. He is showing the intentions behind the Law. Jesus here is following the same pattern that surrounds this passage. “You have heard this, but I say this. . .” is still the common theme. We look at the second part again and read: “But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” Here it is ladies and gentlemen. Here is where this statement teaches us how to properly interpret these three Old Testaments passages in the law. Jesus is instituting grace that you should give as the offended party. He is teaching people how to love with a God-like love. He is teaching people to be more like Him, and this is the point of this passage.
This is not a passage that teaches Christian pacifism. What this passage teaches, with all clarity, is that there is right and wrong when these three Law passages are cited by Christ. He is teaching that we must learn as the offended party to give grace even if a person has wronged us. He is teaching us that we must allow Scripture to work within ourselves, before we cram it down someone else’s throat. If we fail to do this, we can misapply Scripture like these people were doing in Jesus’ time. He is teaching us about personal transparency and responsibility to God being more important to you than winning a fist fight. It is allowing ourselves to be like Christ who gives us grace freely when we confess, repent and make Him Lord of our lives.
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Matthew 5:38-39 – “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.”