IN HIS celebrated Sermon on the Mount, Jesus Christ said: “Do not resist him that is wicked; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other also to him.”--Matthew 5:39.
What did He mean?
Understanding God's Intent
To understand what Jesus meant, we must consider the context of his statement, as well as his audience. Jesus prefaced his counsel quoted above with what his listeners already knew from the Holy Scriptures.
In some of my other teachings on "How To Study Scripture" There are a few points of interest. 1). Who were the chapter and verses written to? Know Your Audience ! 2). What was the original message? 3). How does it apply to us today? A fourth point of study worth noting: "Do not let that which is obscured take precidence over that which is clear."
In teaching on our subject matter Jesus noted: “You heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye and tooth for tooth.’”--Matthew 5:38. Extreme measure of punshiment was the nor for the day - extremes that did not match the offense.
The passages Jesus referred to are found at Exodus 21:24 and Leviticus 24:20. It is noteworthy that in harmony with God’s Law, the “eye for eye” retribution mentioned in those scriptures was properly administered only after an offender had stood trial before the priests and judges who weighed the circumstances and the degree of deliberateness of the offense.--Deuteronomy 19:15-21.
In bible times the Jews distorted the application of this law. A 19th-century commentary on the Bible by Adam Clarke states: “It seems that the Jews had made this law [eye for eye, tooth for tooth] a ground for authorising private resentments, and all the excesses committed by a vindictive spirit. Revenge was often carried to the utmost extremity, and more evil returned than what had been received.” The Scriptures, however, did not authorize personal vendettas.
Jesus’ teaching in his Sermon on the Mount regarding ‘turning the other cheek’ reflects the true spirit of God’s Law to Israel. Jesus did not mean that if his followers are struck on one side of the face, they should stagger to their feet and offer the other side as a target. In Bible times, as is often true today, a slap was not intended to injure physically but was an insult intended to provoke a reaction, a confrontation.
Evidently, Jesus meant that if one person tried to goad another into a confrontation with a literal slap—or with stinging sarcasm—the person slapped should avoid retaliating. Instead, he should attempt to avoid what could become a vicious circle of rendering evil for evil.--Romans 12:17.
Jesus’ words were very similar to those of King Solomon: “Do not say: ‘Just as he did to me, so I am going to do to him. I shall repay to each one according to his acting.’” (Proverbs 24:29) A follower of Jesus would turn the other cheek in the sense of not allowing others to force him, as it were, into a “showdown.”--Galatians 5:26
What About Self-Defense?
Turning the other cheek does not mean that a Christian would not defend himself against violent assailants. Jesus was not saying that we should never defend ourselves but, rather, that we should never strike offensively. He was teaching, we should not allow ourselves to be provoked to take revenge.
While it is wise to retreat whenever possible in order to avoid a fight, it is proper to take steps to protect ourselves and to seek the help of the police if we are a victim of a crime.
Jesus’ early followers appropriately applied the same principle when defending their legal rights. For instance, the apostle Paul took advantage of the legal system of his time to protect his right to carry out Jesus’ commission for his followers to preach. (Matthew 28:19, 20) During a preaching tour in the city of Philippi, Paul and his fellow missionary, Silas, were arrested by the civil authorities and accused of breaking the law.
The two were then publicly flogged and thrown into prison without even a trial. When he had the opportunity, Paul invoked his rights as a Roman citizen. Upon learning of Paul’s status as such, the authorities became fearful of the consequences and begged Paul and Silas to leave without causing trouble. So Paul set a precedent by ‘defending and legally establishing the good news.’- Acts 16:19-24, 35-40; Philippians 1:7.