" />

God's Law vs. Human Tradition: Part 5

Series: Matthew

Sermon by J. Ligon Duncan on Jun 8, 1997

Matthew 5:38-42

Download Audio

Please turn with me in your Bibles to Matthew chapter 5. We have been studying the Sermon on the Mount for the past few weeks, and specifically, since we began our study of Matthew 5 verses 21 and following, we have seen Christ applying the principles of the righteousness of His kingdom, calling His people to true godliness and trying to raise the awareness of those caught up in the web of self righteousness of just how extensive the command of the law is. And in the process, we have seen the Lord Jesus address four areas so far. In Matthew 54:21-26, He has spoken about murder and as He began to speak about the command against murder, immediately He heard people turning Him off saying, "Well, I have never done that before, this command does not apply to me." And then the Lord Jesus applies it to their hearts and to their tongues and says, "You can murder someone in your heart. You can murder them with your tongue through inappropriate hatred and anger." And so He applies that law and says that obedience to the command, the sixth commandment means more than just refraining from physical homicide, it means refraining from a hatred towards brothers that can bring to them destruction and hurt.

And then in the next passage, from verse 27-32, we saw Him give two contrasts. The contrast on His teaching on immorality and the Pharisees teaching on immorality as He addressed the issue of adultery and fornication and said again, that that commandment reaches even to the heart. That there is more to that commandment than simply refraining from literal physical adultery. That it means also, guarding the eyes and the heart from that kind of sin.

He continued on in that passage, in verses 31 and 32, contrasting His teaching on marriage with the Pharisees on marriage. And again, He said your attitude towards marriage is a reflection of your attitude towards God and towards His law.

And then last week, in verses 33-37, we saw Him address the issue of the mouth. So, murder, immorality, marriage, and the mouth. So far, Christ has set forth contrasts between His teaching and the Pharisees teaching in those areas. Again with regard to the third commandment, not taking the Lord’s name in vain, the Pharisees had applied the teaching of the Old Testament, to say, you should never perjure yourself in court. And Jesus says, well that is good teaching, so far, but that is not all that that commandment mean. That commandment means much more than that, in fact, that commandment requires us to treat one another with our tongues in a way that brings honor to God and good to one another.

And so, throughout these passages, Jesus is contrasting His teaching to the Pharisees. Why? Well, first of all, because the Pharisees were wrong. You remember we have said, in each of these passages, Jesus does three things. First, He tells you the wrong teaching of the Pharisees. Then He gives you the right understanding of the law. And then He applies that law, thirdly, to human relationships. In other words, He says, you can see something of a person’s heart for God, or not for God, by the way they live in relation to one another. The way people respond to the second table of law, the Lord Jesus is saying, is a reflection of their relationship with the living God, and so Christ intends to do two things: For people who are self righteous, for people who are Pharisees, He wants them to understand how impossible it is for them to justify themselves by the keeping of the law. Because the law can’t just be kept by keeping a few external rules. It extends to the heart. And we sin, and we break that law daily. But on the other hand, He wants to show His disciples how comprehensive is the call to godliness which has been given to them by their God and Savior.

And so today, we come to the fifth great contrast in Matthew 5, verses 38-42. And again, here we see Christ setting forth His teaching on true godliness. Let’s hear the word of the living God, beginning in verse 38.

"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 him who is evil; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn to him the other also. "And if anyone wants to sue you, and take your shirt, let him have your coat also. "And whoever shall force you to go one mile, go with him two. "Give to him who asks of you, and do not turn away from him who wants to borrow from you."

Thus ends this reading of God’s holy and inspired word. May He add His blessing to it. Let’s look to Him in prayer.

Our Lord and our God, this is Your word. And we ask not only for understanding, but for the grace to be obedient to it, for this is a word which hits close to home. There can be few of us who have not wrestled with bitterness’ in our hearts that have cultivated over the years and have been turned into a full blown hatred. And there can few of us who have not wrestled with the attitude that is self-serving and vengeful. And so we pray, O God, that You would bring the word to bear on our own hearts, on our own situation. Help us to see its truth, to embrace that truth and by grace to walk in that truth. And we will give the praise and the glory. For we ask it in Jesus’ name. Amen.

This passage, like some of the other passages, that we have studied has been party to many common understanding. There have been people who have gone to this passage and to others in Jesus’ teaching, and say, O you see, you see Jesus is teaching here clearly against capital punishment. Jesus is saying, no longer do we follow the law of the Old Testament, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, but though we follow the law of love and therefore capital punishment is wrong. It is wrong to punish people. Others have seen this passage, and they have said, ah, see Jesus is clearly teaching pacifism here. We need to lay down our arms, unilaterally disarm, and we just need to be pacifistic, we need to refuse to be involved in war. If someone wants to take us over, them just let them take us over. Others have said, Jesus here is clearly teaching non-resistance. People can do anything they want to you and you can’t resist at all.

This passage, like others that we have looked at in this sermon is liable to misunderstanding. It was in Jesus’ day, and it is also in ours. Needless to say, I beg to differ with each of those particular foregoing opinions and I would like us to attend for a few moments what Jesus is, in fact, saying in this passage. In fact, we find two or three great truths that Jesus sets down.

I. Personal vengeance is not justified in God's moral law.
   
The first one we find in verse 38. There again, Jesus is attacking the false teaching, the false interpretation of the Pharisees on the law. And He teaches us in the passage that we must not justify personal vengeance by appealing to God’s moral law. In verse 38, we read, you have heard that it was said an eye for an eye and a tooth and for a tooth. Jesus knows that that passage was being quoted by Pharisees and they were using it to argue that personal vengeance was a command allowed for by Moses. And the Lord Jesus immediately takes issue with that and says that is wrong. That is not what that passage means. And so I would like to look for a moment at what that passage in Leviticus 24, which we read this morning in the Old Testament reading, really meant and then let’s look at what the Pharisees were saying about it.

The original intent of the Mosaic legislation in Leviticus 24 of what we call the lex talones, the law of the talon, the law of the claw is not a law promoting personal revenge. It was intended to do several things. It was, first of all, designed to discourage people seeking personal revenge. Think about the law of Moses. The law of Moses all along was designed to prevent personal revenge from taking over. In the ancient near east as in the near east today, blood feuds are very typical. Families will fall out with one another or run across one another in some sort of a dispute and generations later they will still be fighting. Today in America we still speak of the Hatfields and the McCoys. These types of blood feuds existed in ancient Israel and they perpetuated themselves and the law of Moses had several things in it designed to keep that from happening. For instance, the city of refuge. What if you accidentally were involved in the manslaughter of your opposing family’s son? What could you do? It was an accidental death. Surely they would seek revenge. Moses set up cities of refuge. You could run to those cities of refuge and you were safe in those cities of refuge. No revenge could be extracted upon you. The law of the talon, the law of the eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, was a law designed just like the law of the city of refuge, to undercut the practice of personal revenge.

How important is it? It is incredibly important. And people who know the Middle East today will tell you that this practice of personal revenge continues to be a very great factor in society there. A professor of mine took a group to Israel a few years ago. In the context of that visit to Israel for study, one young Jewish member of the group, an American Jewish fellow saw a classmate of his from Northeastern University. She happened to be Muslim. She was on the street unaccompanied by her brothers. And so this young Jewish man went over to speak with her and they had a very nice uneventful conversation and he walked away. Her brothers spotted him speaking to their sister. Her brothers came and kidnapped this man that night because he had broken their Muslim law, which says, you may not speak with a single woman unaccompanied. They chained him to the bumper of their car and drug him through the streets of Jerusalem until he was left for dead. He was in the hospital for months and months and months. And when he got out of the hospital, then his brothers perpetuated that blood feud by going and murdering the young men who were the brothers of this young lady. These sorts of feuds perpetuate without laws to protect them, and that law of the Old Testament, of Moses was designed to protect precisely that type of thing from happening because it puts the decision on punishment and justice, not in the hands of the individuals, who have been harmed, but in the hands of the courts.

And that is the second thing that we see that that law is designed to do. It is designed to administer justice through the courts. You see, an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, is a counsel on giving proportionate punishment. And that assumes that a judge is going to be meteing out that particular punishment. That is why civil vengeance, by the way, is so important. If you do not have courts administering vengeance, then individuals will take that responsibility on themselves. Our American judicial system needs to learn that. When you fail to administer justice, other people will figure out how to do it themselves. And so the law of the talon, an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, teaches that the courts ought to administer proportionate penalties. In fact, that is the next thing that this law is designed to do.

It is designed to make sure that penalties for crimes are just and proportionate. Notice it says, an eye for an eye and a tooth and a tooth. Not a tooth for an eye and an eye for a tooth. In other words, if someone injures someone to the loss of tooth, the punishment should not be the equivalent to the loss of something more precious than a tooth, like an eye. It should be proportionate to the loss. Whether it is a monetary fine, or some sort of other fine. The penalty ought to fit the crime. Nor, if the person has taken someone’s life, should the penalty be proportionate to taking of a person’s tooth. In other words, the penalty should neither be too lax, nor too severe. It ought to be appropriate. An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. That is not a call to vengeance, it is call to equity, to justice in the punishments which are signed by the judge. And that is designed to promote Israel’s safety.

Notice also, that this law is designed to put the fear of God into people who work wickedness. Those who work wickedness ought to fear the swiftness and the severity of the punishments that will be meted out under this law. That is what the original design of this law was, but you see in Jesus’ day, the Pharisees were teaching that this law of Moses allowed for personal revenge. And that was precisely what it was designed to keep from happening. People taking their own bitterness, their own grudges and taking them out on other people and justifying it by appealing to the law of God. And the Lord Jesus says that is a misunderstanding of the law of God, because the Old Testament throughout forbids vengeance. Yes, that is what I said, the Old Testament forbids vengeance. You see it is not that the Old Testament teaches vengeance, and the New Testament doesn’t. It is that the Old Testament itself teaches against vengeance. Let me just show you a few passages. Turn with me to Leviticus chapter 19. In Leviticus chapter 19, we read in verses 17 and 18, "You shall not hate your fellow countryman in your heart. You may surely reprove your neighbor, but shall not incur sin because of him, you shall not take vengeance nor bear any grudge against the sons of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself, I am the Lord." And you say, wow, that is an Old Testament law. That is right. It is an Old Testament law. But then you say to me, yeah, but that says that you are supposed to do it for your neighbor, those who are citizens of Israel. Surely in the New Testament that commandment is extended. Well, look a few verses further to verse 34 of Leviticus 19. "The stranger who resides among you, shall be to you as a native among you and you shall love him as yourself for you were aliens in the land of Egypt. I am the Lord your God." The law of love to neighbor extended even to those strangers which dwelt in the tent in Israel and it was a law which required Israel not to practice personal revenge. The Pharisees were violating the spirit of the law by encouraging people to nurse grudges, to seek personal revenge for things done against them.

Let me ask you today, what are you struggling with? Is there a bitterness for something done to you in the past that you are nursing? Perhaps something not done to you. Perhaps something that you felt that you deserved. And someone close, perhaps a husband, a wife, a son, a daughter, a mother, a father, a friend, a business associate, a neighbor, a minister, an elder, a deacon, and you have nursed that grudge and that grudge has become hatred and now all you want is vengeance. You would delight if the Lord extracted vengeance on that person. Where are you struggling here?

II. We must be guided by a Spirit of love not revenge.
   
Jesus comes to tell us, in contrast to the Pharisees view of this command, what He says the command means. And we learn that in verse 39, and this is the second thing Jesus teaches us in the passage. That we must not be guided by a spirit of revenge, but by a spirit of love and of peace. In verse 39, He says, "But I say to you, do not resist an evil person, but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also." Jesus here, gives His interpretation of the law, and He condemns the spirit of lovelessness, of hatred, a spirit that yearns to have revenge, He enjoins us as believers to have in our attitudes, and in our words, and in our deeds a desire to show that we are filled with a spirit of love and not a spirit of animosity and hostility. Christians bear witness to the love of God implanted in them when they respond to wickedness with love.

It was during my time in Edinburgh studying that some of the IRA bombings continued to occur in Northern Ireland. One evening on the BBC, I happened to see an interview by a BBC reporter with a dear Christian gentleman whose child had been lost to an IRA bomb. He was not politically accurate. He was not involved in the dispute between the various forces in Northern Ireland. He was simply a Christian who worked and went to church and had a family and was living a quiet life and his daughter happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and she was killed by a bomb, and the reporter only hours after her loss, was in asking him personal questions. I thought for few moments how I, as American, would respond with the invasive kinds of questions that were being asked this poor man. But he was a brave man and he responded to them manfully and in the course of that conversation, he was asked, "Do you bear a desire for revenge against these men who have perpetrated the crime?" He said this, "I bear no hatred to these men, I would that they would come to Christ. I would that they would know the peace of God, because men who have the peace of God could not have done what has been done to my daughter." He did not call on the authorities to track them down or to do justice, but he said, in my heart, I bear no hatred, I bear no desire for revenge against these men. It was a powerful testimony to Christian love, because every instinct of a father, surely would have been to tear those men apart limb from limb personally. And yet, he did not bear the spirit of revenge.

A Christian must make choices in hard situations that reflect a deliberate agenda of love. Jesus has just called us, a few verses before, peacemakers. Are we? Are we peacemakers when we are offended, when we are mortally wounded, do we lash back in hate? Or, do we respond in love? It is in those hard times that we find out what is in our hearts, isn’t it? We can think we are growing in the Lord, and then we are so brutally hurt by someone, and immediately the response is anger. Immediately the response is a desire for justice. And usually that sense of justice entails in it a healthy dose of hate and vengeance. And we want to see that person done in. If you find yourself today consumed with anger, and with spite and with rage and with hate, hear what Christ is saying, that is a sign of serious spiritual danger. A heart consumed with hate is not big enough for the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. And has perhaps never tasted of the love of God itself. And if it is a Christian heart, then there is surely much growth that must happen in that heart.

III. We must be people of love and kindness even towards our enemies.
   
And so Jesus teaches us positively in verses 39-42 this last principle that I will leave you with today. And that is we must positively be people of love and kindness even towards our enemies. And Jesus in this passage gives four illustrations of the principle that He has set down in the first part of verse 39. You see Him applying the law to human relationships in four different ways. Look at His words, beginning at the end of verse 39: Whoever slaps you on the right cheek, turn the other to him also. If anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, let him have your coat also. Whoever forces you to go one mile, go with him two. Give to him who asks of you, and do not turn away from him who wants to borrow from you.

Jesus applies the real meaning of the law to four different situations in human relationships. In verse 39, for instance, He is talking about how we should respond to those who threaten to injure our bodies. Whoever slaps you on the right cheek, turn the other to him also. Now every schoolboy in here knows the law of the playground. You hit me, I am going to hit you back twice as hard. And that is converse, it is contradictory, it is in opposition to what Christ is saying here. Christ is saying, if you are imposed upon, and the only thing that is at stake is you reputation, your feelings, then you forego and you do not strike. The motto of the English schoolboy, ‘No one touches me with impunity.’ That is, in fact, the motto of the Prince of Wales, who is an Englishman, I might add.

That is not what Jesus is saying. Jesus is saying, yes, for the sake of the Gospel, you must be willing to bear that type of brutal treatment. Think of Stephen. A man who, because he loved men and women and wanted them to come to Christ and experience eternal salvation, was preaching the Gospel to them. And men and women took up stones and they stoned him to death. And in Acts chapter 7, verse 60, he followed his Lord in praying a prayer: Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing. This passage is not a call for us not to defend our families. It is not a call for us not to defend others. It is not a call not to defend our nation – far from it. But it is a call to be willing to forego our own rights if all that is at stake is our own right and our own reputation. To forego our own rights for the sake of the kingdom and love even those who threaten injury.

Notice in verse 40, we see Jesus tell us what our response ought to be to those who would rob us of our belongings, of our estates. How should we respond to them? Jesus says if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, let him have your coat also. Now, again, don’t misunderstand what Christ is saying. He is not telling you, Christians may not resort to a court of law. He is not saying ,Christians may have nothing to do with lawyers. Don’t hang around with them at all. He is not saying, Christians shouldn’t be lawyers and they shouldn’t practice law, and they should never go to court. That is not His point.

His point is to detect an attitude in us, are we quick to demand our rights, are we quick to press our interests despite the needs of others, are we willing to forebear and to forego our rights for the sake of the kingdom? We talk about tort reform in our society. We need tort reform, we say. Maybe we do, but we need heart reform too, in our society. Because nothing can protect you from people that are ready to sue you at the drop of a hat. What is that? It is a reflection of the state of the heart. And we are all, my friends, party to it. Because we in our day, are concerned about our rights. And if our children have done something wrong at school, it couldn’t have been our children, and hey, our children have their rights, it has got to be the principal, it has got to be the teacher. And if something has happened out in the community, it certainly has to be the responsibility of that big large nasty industry that has done something. It couldn’t be individuals that are at fault. And certainly not us. And we have a mindset which insists upon our rights and is quick to attack others. Jesus is responding precisely to that.

Think about the apostle Paul. Paul was a Roman citizen, that gave him certain rights, one of those rights was that you cannot be beaten by a Roman procouncil without a trial. On numerous occasions, the apostle Paul never mentioned the fact that he was a Roman citizen, until after the beating had been administered. Why? I believe that if you will go study the book of Acts, you will find that when Paul thinks that there is a kingdom matter at stake, he will call upon his Roman citizenship and insist on being treated according to the Roman law. But when all is at stake is Paul and his reputation, his situation, he won’t even tell people of that right that he could have claimed. Is that our attitude, or are we ready to stand on our rights, even when others are taking advantage of us.

Notice in verse 41, He speaks there of how we ought to respond to those who want to rob us of our liberty. Those who want to press us into service that we don’t want to be in. Whoever forces you to go one mile, go with him two. And in the ancient Persian mail service, there was a law that the Medes and Persians had made that basically said that a mail carrier could press you or your animal into service any time he wanted to in order to get the king's mail through. And so there may be a reference here to this. If the mail carrier has told you, you have got to help me, you have got to give me your animal, and walk with me for a mile, Jesus says, you go with him two. Again, you see the principle is a willingness to lay aside our rights for the sake of the kingdom. Think of Joseph. Joseph was not treated nicely by his brothers. When he has the power to extract revenge, Joseph refrained from that revenge, and he did good to his brothers. He fed them, he cared for them, he housed them, he blessed them, he reconciled with them. He could have insisted on his rights, have them dragged before the courts and be imprisoned. They had been guilty, almost of manslaughter. They had certainly been guilty of kidnapping, and also of illegal slave trading. And yet, he did not insist upon his rights. But he reconciled.

Notice also in verse 42, he says to us, give to him who asks of you, and do not turn away from him who wants to borrow from you. There he speaks of how we ought to respond to those who are in distress, those who are in need of assistance. Do we respond in our giving, in our charity with generosity, or are we grudging? Do we give to charity, grudging every step of the way? Thinking of how much fun we could have had with that money, how much better we would spend it if we had that money to ourselves? Do we lend in time of need for selfish reasons, for the gain of interest, of excessive interest? Or do we lend selflessly, for the benefit of others?

You see, the whole thrust of Jesus’ teaching here, is us abdicating our rights for the sake of the kingdom and for the good of others. And Jesus is saying, "You know what love is? Love is abdicating your rights for the sake of kingdom and for others." And that is the only way Christian community can last my friends, because we are all going to offend one another. And if we stand on our rights every time, then we are going to have 35,000 different communions all with one person in it, because we all hurt one another. If we are not willing to go the way of Christ and forebear and absorb, and forgive, and love at our own costs, then we are not willing to walk in the way of Christ.

What is your heart like today? Is yours a heart filled with love, or with bitterness? If it is filled with bitterness, you will never be able to extract yourself from that bitterness by your own strength. You need the grace of Christ. And the only way you can get that grace of Christ is to trust in Him and to rest in Him. I would invite you to do it now. Let’s look to Him in prayer.

Our Lord God, some of us are consumed by a wicked bitterness that has poisoned our soul. And it has caused us to desire to stand on our own rights at the expense of others. It has caused us to desire to see people destroyed rather than built up. Free us from it. And make us a loving people. May God, if we are in this place without grace today, we pray for Your grace. For everyone, for anyone, who will but embrace the Lord of Lords who lay down His rights, so that we might receive everything. We give You the praise and the glory, for we ask it in Jesus’ name. Amen.

© First Presbyterian Church.

This transcribed message has been lightly edited and formatted for the Web site. No attempt has been made, however, to alter the basic extemporaneous delivery style, or to produce a grammatically accurate, publication-ready manuscript conforming to an established style template.

Should there be questions regarding grammar or theological content, the reader should presume any website error to be with the webmaster/transcriber/editor rather than with the original speaker. For full copyright, reproduction and permission information, please visit the First Presbyterian Church Copyright, Reproduction & Permission statement.