What did Jesus mean when He said not to resist an evildoer, and to instead turn the other cheek (Matthew 5:39)?
In Matthew 5:38-41 , Jesus made three radical statements. First, He said that a person should turn the other cheek when someone strikes him. Second, He declared that His followers should give those who sue them more than they are asking. Third, He said that a person conscripted by a Roman officer to carry a load for 1 mile should offer to go 2 miles. Does this mean that we should never resist when somebody attacks us? Should we let everyone take advantage of us?
This can’t be what Jesus meant. After all, Jesus denounced the Pharisees who attacked Him ( Matthew 23 ), and objected when He was struck by one of the officers of the high priest ( John 18:22-23). Further, He advised His disciples to take measures to defend themselves ( Matthew 10:16; Luke 22:36-38 ). He also declared that they shouldn’t worry beforehand about how they should respond to their enemies’ charges, because He would give them the right words to say so that their adversaries wouldn’t be able “to contradict or resist” them ( Luke 21:14-15 ).
Similarly, the apostle Paul aggressively defended himself against his enemies, asserting his rights as a Roman citizen, and making it clear to his attackers that there could be consequences if he were unlawfully harmed ( Acts 23:1-3; 25:14-27 ).
What Jesus asks of His followers is not passivity, but surrender of the right to personal revenge. His three radical examples make His point about the attitude we should have toward those who wrong us. Rather than getting even, we should be willing to go to the opposite extreme. We need to be ready to humble ourselves for the kingdom of God. We need to understand that vengeance isn’t ours, but the Lord’s ( Romans 12:19 ).
The natural human tendency has been to seek the emotional satisfaction of revenge for perceived injury ( Genesis 4:8 ). Our instinctive response to any kind of injury is hatred and desire for vengeance. This is why Jesus made it so clear in His Sermon on the Mount that not only outward murder but also inward hatred is subject to God’s judgment ( Matthew 5:22-23 ).
The Old Testament law placed limitations on vengeance ( Exodus 21:23-25 ). Although, the “eye for an eye” provision of the Mosaic law has often been misunderstood as requiring vengeance, its actual purpose was to place limitations on it. The law prescribed that punishment must fit the crime. The law wouldn’t permit taking a life in revenge for an insult or a minor injury. If an eye were put out, only an eye could be taken; if a tooth, only a tooth.
Jesus went much further than the law, making it clear that He wasn’t merely calling for more limitations on vengeance. In Matthew 5:38-48 , He implied that we must give up personal vengeance altogether. But as illustrated above by both Jesus and Paul, there is a difference between confronting evil and seeking personal revenge. It is possible to confront evil with a desire for the redemption of its perpetrator. We are called to love a sinner while confronting his sin, but when we seek vengeance we are motivated by hatred—a desire to make someone suffer for what they have done to us.
If Matthew 5:38-48 were taken literally at all times, we would have to let everyone take advantage of us. Turning the other cheek would become an encouragement for evil. This isn’t what Jesus had in mind. His vivid examples illustrate His disciples’ need to give up any sense of entitlement to personal revenge, to be purged of the motivation of personal vengeance. By asking them to turn the other cheek, Jesus meant that His disciples should be motivated by love and a desire for the redemption and forgiveness of offenders—even when opposing their actions.