I try my best to stay out of politics with my lessons because it becomes so horribly divisive and people tend to be instantly closed-minded when they disagree with you and I can’t teach someone who is closed-minded. Jesus never shied away from political discourse but let’s face it, He had one thing (among many, many others) going for Him that I don’t—He is God and He’s always right. Having said that, I find myself walking along the edges of a political issue in light of the recent school shooting in Florida. However, I’m not really going to get into the gun debate per se. Instead, a number of very faithful Christians have asked me, since the shooting, whether or not Christians are permitted to defend themselves in light of Jesus’ command to Turn The Other Cheek. More specifically, are Christians permitted to defend themselves and others using whatever force necessary—even lethal force?
Although the intent of this lesson isn’t to discuss specific defensive methods or tools, I will offer some brief thoughts on the matter based on, oddly enough, some biblical insights gleaned from Jesus Himself. However, the bulk of this lesson will seek to understand what exactly Jesus meant when He said we must Turn The Other Cheek and whether or not Christians are permitted to defend themselves. We will look specifically at what the Bible says about our Subject Text and its relationship to self-defense, bloodshed, and patiently enduring persecution.
38“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ 39But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. 40And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. 41If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. 42Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.
Our Subject Text is from Jesus’ famous Sermon on the Mount. The Israelites lived under the strict rules of the Old Testament Law that demanded justice in the face of injustice. If someone broke the law, God demanded justice be served. Although Jesus didn’t come to abolish the Law, He did come to raise the bar and teach people about the spirit of the Law not just the letter of the Law. Sometimes following the letter of the Law is much easier than following the spirit of the Law and the Sermon on the Mount challenges all of us to seek the spirit of the Law which is always so much more difficult. The Sermon on the Mount has a very familiar literary pattern. It starts with Jesus saying, “You’ve heard it said…” and then it is followed by, “But I tell you…”. Jesus has the authority to make these claims because He was involved in giving the Law in the first place. Here is a very important thing to remember in the context of our lesson—the Trinity. The stronger your Trinitarian theology, the more you will see a commonality between the Old Testament and the New Testament.
38“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ 39But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.
The Old Testament Law is replete with commands, not so much of retribution, but of justice. For example, Exodus 22:1 states, "Whoever steals an ox or a sheep and slaughters it or sells it must pay back five head of cattle for the ox and four sheep for the sheep.” There are many other examples in the Law that require specific repayment or reparation for some injustice. Although the “eye for eye, and tooth for tooth” referred to by Jesus in v. 38 isn’t specifically found in the Old Testament, it is likely that Jesus was either generalizing to incorporate the spirit of the Law or He was referring to an idiom that became popular during His time to refer to the method of justice practiced in Israel at that time. In any case, it is a generalized representation of the way the Old Testament Law worked. “No matter how great the offender, he could not escape punishment, and no matter how small, no more could be exacted of him than his offense merited. It took punishment out of the realm of private vengeance, but Jewish practice tended to put it back. By contrast, Jesus teaches that his people should not be noted for insisting on their just deserts. They must be ready to forgo private vengeance, as indeed the law provided if people would only heed it.”
Jesus adds a slight twist to the Law in v. 39 when He first says that we shouldn’t resist an evil person, and then adds “if anyone.” It seems clear that the antecedent to “anyone” is an “evil person.” It is difficult to accept that Jesus would simply say that we shouldn’t resist an evil person without clarifying exactly what that means especially in light of some of His other instructions that we will review later. More likely, He was referring to an evil person who slaps you on the right cheek.
This is the go-to verse that so many Christians point to claiming that this proves Jesus is a pacifist and we should likewise be pacifists. That Christians, like Jesus, must face all persecution without defending ourselves in the same way Jesus did even if that leads to our death. I don’t want to get too deep into the weeds with respect to the claim that Jesus was a pacifist because that’s probably a whole lesson in and of itself. I’ll just say this, there are some moneychangers who were nursing some whiplashes at the hands of Jesus who would disagree with that description of Jesus as a pacifist (Jn 2:15). Also, the image we get of Jesus in the Book of Revelation paints a picture of Jesus as the King who rides out to war with a robe that drips blood with heaven’s army following close behind Him. And finally, remember when I said that it was important to have a strong Trinitarian theology? Well, this is one of those arguments where that is very important. If you’ve read through the Old Testament, would you say that God is a pacifist? Not even remotely! However, we tend to breeze over the word “God” and conveniently forget that within that “God” we must include Jesus. And Jesus was the same in the Old Testament as He was in the New Testament. He may have come for a different purpose but it wouldn’t be accurate to say that Jesus suddenly became a pacifist. Let’s talk about that other purpose because that’s important in the context of the argument to Turn The Other Cheek.
People who insist that to Turn The Other Cheek, we must allow ourselves to be persecuted and even put to death in the same way that Jesus was persecuted and put to death. When Jesus was falsely accused before the Sanhedrin, He refused to defend Himself. When He was physically abused, He didn’t fight back. He had all the ultimate power available to Him to defend Himself but He refused to utilize it and allowed Himself to be put to death. Many people point to this verse as proof that we must be willing to do the same. Here’s what I want to say about that claim, there may be times when God calls us to sacrifice our lives for the advancement of His kingdom. However, Jesus’ death on the cross was not specifically an example for us to follow. Jesus’ primary purpose in coming to earth was to die for our sins. He accomplished many other things and set many examples for us to follow but dying wasn’t specifically an example we are supposed to follow. Instead, we are called to live out our faith in His name. Many Christians throughout history, gave their lives for their faith but that wasn’t their primary purpose. Instead, their primary purpose, like ours, was to live out their lives daily as faithful followers of Jesus Christ. Yes, we should consider it joy to share in His sufferings but that doesn’t mean we are called to go look for opportunities to suffer. Those will come our way whether we want them or not. There will be ample opportunities for us to encounter people who hate us, offend us, and insult us and that’s where this command by Jesus is instructional for all of us.
Jesus said if an evil person slaps you on the right cheek you are to turn to them the other cheek as well. In vv. 38-39 Jesus isn’t referring to violent, physical abuse. “Striking a person on the right cheek suggests a backhanded slap from a typically right-handed aggressor and was a characteristic Jewish form of insult. Jesus tells us not to trade such insults even if it means receiving more. In no sense does v. 39 require Christians to subject themselves or others to physical abuse or danger.” This isn’t the equivalent of being punched in the face out of anger. In this context, what Jesus is saying is that if someone insults you, don’t repay them equally with an insult. Instead, we should endure insults with the same nobility as did Jesus when He was wrongly accused and insulted. Again, nothing in these verses require Christians to endure or invite violent, physical abuse.
40And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well.
In our highly litigious culture, can you imagine how the principle of v. 40 would work in today’s culture? People would be lined up outside your door threatening to sue you for whatever you may have knowing you would turn over to them whatever they demand and more. This certainly couldn’t have been Jesus’ intent. Instead, it is likely that Jesus was referring to a legitimate legal claim that someone else may have over something you own. In that case, Jesus is saying that it would be better to turn over whatever may be in dispute and even more in order to demonstrate that possessions are not nearly as important as maintaining relational harmony. The principle being that arguing and fighting, especially in a public court of law, in order to protect our personal dignity or property reflects a worldly, temporal perspective instead of a heavenly, eternal perspective.
“Rather than trying to get an inner garment back by legal recourse, one should relinquish the outer one too! If taken literally, this practice would quickly lead to nudity, an intolerable dishonor in Palestinian Jewish society. Many peasants (at least in poorer areas like Egypt) had only one outer cloak and pursued whatever legal recourse necessary to get it back if it was seized. Because the outer cloak doubled as a poor man’s bedding, biblical law permitted no one to take it, even as a pledge overnight. Thus Jesus demands that we surrender the very possession the law explicitly protects from legal seizure. To force his hearers to think, then, Jesus provides a shockingly graphic, almost humorous illustration of what he means by nonresistance. His hearers value honor and things more than they value the kingdom.”
41If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles.
It can be difficult to understand exactly what Jesus is referring to in v. 41. Let me try and give you an example that might help you understand what Jesus is trying to teach us. “The one mile refers to the practice of the Roman soldiers requiring civilians to carry their burden for one mile. By Roman law, the soldier could require not more than one mile of a single porter, but Jesus’ kingdom servants (in representing the gracious spirit of their king) are to go beyond what is required of them.” Here is what it might sound like today: You’ve worked hard all day and you’re ready to go home when the boss walks into your office and drops a mountain of reports on your desk and says, “Since you’ve already finished your work for the day, you won’t mind reviewing these additional reports. I know it’s not your job but no one else has the time and you’ve finished your other work.” I know some of you out there right now are reading these words and your blood is starting to boil because this just happened to you or it happens to you all the time. What you really want to do is tell your boss to do it himself. You’ve finished your work and you’re going home. Instead, this is where Jesus wants us to say, “Absolutely! I’d be happy to help out wherever I can.” Like the person who makes a claim against our personal property, people constantly make claims against our personal time. How we respond to those claims reveals our perspective on possessions and personal time. Do they belong to us or do they belong to the Lord of our lives to do with as He wills?
42Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.
Jesus is really talking about two things in v. 42—giving to those who can’t or won’t repay us and giving to those who intend to repay us. Notice that Jesus has now covered all aspects of our attitude toward our possessions; those who want to take them from v. 40; those who simply ask to have them; and those who want to borrow them. While this can certainly be understood in terms of possessions, if I had to guess, I’d say that Jesus specifically had money in view in v. 42. Do you want to know why I think that? Because I have witnessed that people will part with their possessions, even reluctantly, before they will part with their money. Keep in mind that Jesus isn’t talking about the practices of financial institutions he’s talking about us and our attitude toward our own money.
Here in America, it’s become fashionable by some to insist that millionaires and billionaires “pay their fair share” of our society’s costs because they can better afford it even when the top 1% of our country’s income earners already pay more than the bottom 95% combined. This argument is simply a convenient way for people who aren’t part of the 1% to avoid parting with any more of their money. People are able to make the most illogical arguments against parting with their money. The idea that people who make more money should somehow give a disproportionate percentage of their income for whatever reason compared to us reveals the attitude in our own hearts. Now the statistics I provided above represent income tax payments but those same people who want to pay less in taxes aren’t making that argument so that they have more money left over to give away to the needy. Instead, they want to make sure they keep more of their own money for themselves! Interestingly, Jesus doesn’t say how much we should give or how much we should lend, only that we should. The amount and our willingness will reveal our attitude toward money. “The point…[is] that in the kingdom of heaven self-interest does not rule, and even our legal rights and legitimate expectations may have to give way to the interests of others. It is for each disciple to work out for themselves how this principle can most responsibly be applied to the issue of giving and lending in different personal and social circumstances in which we find ourselves.”
Let me just offer you a bit of unsolicited advice about lending money that I have taught my own children. Be obedient to Jesus’ command to lend to those who ask but do so without the expectation of repayment. You win no matter what happens. If you are repaid then you were obedient to lend to those who ask to borrow and if you are not repaid then you were obedient to give to those who ask. Either way, you were obedient to the Lord’s command.
Turn The Other Cheek
It seems clear then that this term within the context of our Subject Text does not command that Christians may not defend themselves. It does not say that Christians must allow themselves to be physically abused or even be put to death if they can avoid it. But what, exactly, does it mean for Christians to defend themselves.
Self-defense is pretty self-explanatory—it is the act of defending oneself from an attack of some sort. Now we’ve already addressed above in vv. 38-39 what Jesus commands in the event of a verbal attack. But what about a violent, physical attack? I believe we have three options, run, fight, or endure.
I know people will argue that we must simply endure persecution and suffering because it is inevitable as followers of Christ (2 Tim 3:12). To this, I say yes and no. There is a time to endure and there is a time to run and there is a time to fight. We like to think of Paul as always enduring some kind of persecution and suffering considering so many of his letters were written while he sat in a prison somewhere and Peter as being the immovable rock of the church in Jerusalem who never backed down from a fight. However, we forget that both escaped persecution by fleeing at some point (Acts 12:17, Acts 14:6). Jesus told his followers not that they shouldn’t flee but hoped that their flight would not be dangerous or at an inopportune time (Mt 24:20). Jesus commanded his disciples that if they were persecuted in one town that they should flee to another (Mt. 10:23). In a sense, Jesus often fled persecution until the time came to allow Himself to be arrested and put to death. Again, be careful when using Jesus as an example in this case as well because Jesus had a specific purpose for coming to earth so escaping persecution was only for self-preservation until the time came to offer up His life. Our purpose on earth is not the same as Jesus’ purpose was. His purpose was to die for us. Our purpose is to live for Him.
Sometimes running just isn’t an option. Sometimes we are left with the choice of enduring even if that means our death or fighting to stay alive. I contend that we have a duty to preserve our own lives as long as we are reasonably able to. Your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit and you are to glorify God in your body (1 Cor. 6:19-20). Additionally, I believe that those who have the courage and are called to do so, must protect and defend the lives of those who are weak and vulnerable (Ps 82:4). While we might agree that Christians are allowed to defend themselves, the extent to which Christians can go to defend themselves and others is the place where we often part company. Specifically, our paths tend to diverge when it comes to lethal force.
Christians who oppose lethal force for self-defense often site Leviticus 24:17 that reads, “Whoever kills any man shall surely be put to death.” That seems pretty cut and dry. Except it’s not because in Lev. 24:16 God says that any man who blasphemes the name of God shall be put to death. Additionally, Ex. 22:2 explains that if a thief breaks in at night and is killed then there is no guilt. So clearly not all instances of killing someone is considered wrong even though it is gravely serious. Nehemiah 4 is a perfect picture of what God sanctioned as personal and community defense. There it reads that while the people worked at rebuilding the wall surrounding Jerusalem they armed themselves with swords, spears, and bows and were willing to use lethal force to protect themselves and their neighbors from those who were threatening to persecute them. Self-defense seemed like a necessity in the Old Testament but what about the New Testament? Didn’t Jesus change things during the era of the New Testament?
Remember what I said about your Trinitarian theology. Jesus was present as a member of the Godhead during the Old Testament era the same way He was during the New Testament era except for His humanity. He was the same Son of God who sanctioned Nehemiah and the remnant in Jerusalem to arm themselves for the purpose of lethal self-defense if it came to that as the Son of God who said to His disciples, “‘When I sent you without money bag, knapsack, and sandals, did you lack anything’ So they said, ‘Nothing.’ Then he said to them, ‘But now, he who has a money bag, let him take it, and likewise a knapsack; and he who has no sword, let him sell his garment and buy one.’” The disciples had at least two swords with them as they traveled. They even carried swords with them while they prayed with Jesus in Gethsemane and Jesus had no problem with that. Surely Jesus understood that those swords represented personal protection against an attack—a tool for the purpose of self-defense.
An Aside On Self-Defense Weapons
This is where I’m going to skirt along the edge of the gun debate. Specifically, what type of weapons are appropriate for self-defense. My opinion is, it depends on what someone is comfortable with and properly trained to use. My belief is that if the law allows, we should be able to use at least the same level of weapon that might be used against us. For example, Jesus instructed His disciples to arm themselves with swords. Swords (As well as spears and bows and arrows but both were more difficult to use and required more training. They weren’t more lethal or less lethal they were just different tools.) were the lethal combat weapon of Jesus’s day. They were used by criminals and by the military personnel belonging to the ruling authority at that time—Rome. He didn’t instruct the disciples to arm themselves with sticks, or rocks, or shovels. He instructed them to arm themselves with at least the same level of lethal weapon that might be used to threaten or persecute them.
An Aside On Limiting Self-Defense
Limiting self-defense takes various forms around the world. There isn’t enough space here to run through all of them. Here in America, qualified citizens are permitted to carry concealed firearms for self-defense and public defense. Also, here in America, we have what’s known as “Gun-Free Zones.” This is the failed utopian concept that assumes criminals abide by the law. Unfortunately, criminals, by definition, defy the law. The only people gun-free zones disarm are law-abiding citizens. As a result, most of the recent mass shootings in our country have occurred in gun-free zones. Nevertheless, we live in a country where gun-free zones are permitted and sometimes encouraged. However, I would like to remind Christian leaders of private businesses, churches, and other Christian organizations who adopt gun-free zones in the face of statistics that clearly demonstrate that gun-free zones actually put people in danger, if you knowingly put someone in danger and they are injured or killed as a result, God will hold you responsible for their injury or death. Ezekiel 33 reads, “But if the watchman sees the sword coming and does not blow the trumpet, and the people are not warned, and a sword comes and takes a person from them, he is taken away in his iniquity, but his blood I will require from the watchman’s hand.” We also see the principle in the Mosaic Law where it teaches that if we fail to warn and protect others from the reasonable possibility of danger then we are guilty for whatever happens. Deuteronomy 22:8, if someone falls from your roof, and you failed to construct a barrier around the edge, you would be held liable for the injury or death of a person who falls from the roof. In Exodus 21:29-31, if a man’s ox is prone to harm people, the owner is liable if he fails to confine it and it hurts or kills someone. If the ox hurts someone the owner is fined. If the ox kills someone the owner is put to death! I can appreciate a Christian business, or organization, or church trying to keep its people safe by creating gun-free zones, but the statistics and common sense prove that that is a failed policy. Limiting peoples’ ability to defend themselves always puts them and others in greater danger of being hurt or killed.
An Aside On Defending Personal Property
Here in America, we are permitted to defend our personal property by lethal force against theft. However, the Bible makes an interesting distinction here. Exodus 22:2-3 reads, “If the thief is found breaking in, and he is struck so that he dies, there shall be no guilt for his bloodshed. If the sun has risen on him, there shall be guilt for his bloodshed.” We tend to forget that there was no electricity during the Old Testament era. It was generally pretty dark at night. Therefore, the intentions of an intruder in a home were difficult to ascertain. Were they there to steal some personal property or were they there to rape or kill someone. However, the intentions of an intruder in the daytime may be easier to ascertain. If it is determined that an intruder has entered your home with the intention of stealing something and there is no threat of harm to anyone then you have no right to kill the thief. You have the difficult task of trying to ascertain if there is risk to you or someone under your care, like your spouse or your children, or if the risk is simply the loss of personal property. If it is just the loss of personal property, then our Subject Text can and should inform our actions. We must not hold on so tight to our personal property that we are willing to take the life of another human being even if the law allows it.
The Serious Nature Of Bloodshed
Unfortunately, our culture has become desensitized to death and bloodshed. However, bloodshed is an extremely serious matter to God—any kind of bloodshed. Most people tend to see blood as just another bodily fluid. But God sees blood as the source of life. During the Old Testament sacrificial era, the shedding of blood was necessary for the temporary atonement of sins. And during the New Testament era, Christ had to shed His blood for the eternal atonement and forgiveness of sins. In the Book of Revelation, the martyred saints cried out to God to avenge their blood (Rev. 6:10). When Cain killed Abel, we’re told that Abel’s blood flowed onto the ground and that Abel’s blood cried out to God to punish Cain for what he’d done. Bloodshed plays a prominent role throughout the Bible so it must be important. Some bloodshed is unjustified and deserves the harsh judgment God demands. However, God is very serious about justified bloodshed as well. For example, David wasn’t allowed to construct the Temple because he was responsible for so much bloodshed—bloodshed that was commanded by God (1 Chron. 28:3)! David shed so much blood that he was disqualified from certain things even though that bloodshed was sanctioned by God (1 Chron. 22:8). It may seem unfair but it should send up a giant red flag that tells us that God is very serious about bloodshed-even bloodshed that is justified. Consequently, as Christians, we cannot take the taking of a life and bloodshed lightly—even if we are defending ourselves or those who are weak and vulnerable who we are commanded to protect and defend.
Here’s where it is important to remember that shedding blood is never the fault of the instrument used to shed that blood. For example, many in our culture love to blame guns for the shedding of blood. Yet when Cain killed Abel, God held Cain responsible for his death not whatever instrument Cain may have used. When God held David responsible for all the blood that was on his hands, David didn’t argue that it was his sword that was to blame. Common sense tells us that bloodshed is the fault of sinful human beings, not the instruments they might use to shed that blood. Those instruments, rocks, sticks, swords, guns, etc., are merely tools that can be used for good or for evil depending on who is wielding them.
History has proven that there are times and places where Christians can neither flee nor defend themselves from threats or persecution. Some of you live in places like that even today. For those who have given their lives for the faith and for those of you who face persecution daily, the only option you have is to endure and hope that the Lord will show you mercy in some way. This is the final option for Christians and certainly has its place in God’s plan for redemption. This option has to be a personal decision, however. I cannot make this decision for you. For example, if there is a choice, I can’t fault someone who thinks it is right to flee, nor can I fault someone who thinks it is right to fight. However, for many people throughout history, they had no choice. Volumes of books line the shelves of libraries that tell the stories of Christians who lost their lives or endured horrible persecution for their faith. They couldn’t run away or fight back so they endured, sometimes until death.
Is this the path we should all chose, to endure even to the point of death when we have the option to flee or to fight? Some people would say it is. However, I think I’ve demonstrated that fleeing and fighting are two Biblical options. It is, ultimately, a personal choice each of us has to make for ourselves.
Keep in mind that killing someone is killing a fellow image bearer of God even if they are a hardened and violent criminal. Killing someone is permanent—you can’t take it back. However, you too are an image bearer of God. Your death is also permanent and those who love you can’t get you back either. Who should live and who should die was never meant to be in our hands. However, after sin entered the world it became a reality that we now have to deal with albeit not without considerable forethought and wisdom.
This was a really difficult lesson because even if you’re right in the case of lethal self-defense given the right to preserve your own life and the command to protect and defend those who are weak and vulnerable, you’re still judged harshly by God because of His view of bloodshed. There is also the matter of Jesus’ teaching that the one who lives by the sword will die by the sword (Mt. 26:52). Violence cannot be a way of life for us as Christians. Sometimes we are reluctantly drawn into an event of violence but our lives must otherwise be defined by peace. In the same Sermon on the Mount, from which we took our Subject Text, Jesus also said, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God (Mt. 5:9).” Ultimately, the term, Turn The Other Cheek, does not mean that we must not defend ourselves against violent threats or persecution. However, just because we can defend ourselves, doesn’t always mean we should. Sometimes, even in the face of physical violence, it might be better to Turn The Other Cheek.
(Audio version; Music--"Simple Pursuit" by: Passion and "Who You Say I Am" by: Hillsong Worship. Music Coordination by: Meagan Seredinski)
 Leon Morris, The Gospel According to Matthew, (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1992), 126.
 Craig L. Blomberg, Matthew—The New American Commentary, (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1992), 113.
 Craig S. Keener, Matthew—The IVP New Testament Commentary Series, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1997), 128-129.
 Stuart K. Weber, Matthew—Holman New Testament Commentary, (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 2000), 69.
 Statistics according to Americans For Tax Reform
 R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew—The New International Commentary on the New Testament, (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2007), 222-223.