In the Sermon on the Mount, you will find some of the hardest statements Jesus ever made. When I say hard, I mean difficult to put into practice—at least for me! For example,
“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I tell you not to resist an evil person. But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. If anyone wants to sue you and take away your tunic, let him have your cloak also. And whoever compels you to go one mile, go with him two. Give to him who asks you, and from him who wants to borrow from you do not turn away.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you.” (Matthew 5:38-44 NKJV)
Turning the other cheek. Going the extra mile. Loving your enemies. These are high standards!
Individuals vs. Governments
Now, here is the question: Are these standards by which we should govern society? And if so, how could we justify having military and police?
The 19th century Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy wrote a book entitled What I Believe, in which he gives the conclusions that he came to after reading and re-reading the Sermon on the Mount. Tolstoy said that Christ forbids the human institution of courts of law because they do not return good for evil as the Sermon on the Mount says to. Tolstoy also believed that criminals love good and hate evil as we do. And he did not think that a Christian should be involved in the army or the police force or the courts of law.
One man who was dramatically influenced by Tolstoy’s teachings was Gandhi. Gandhi believed that by practicing these teachings you could bring about a perfect state where punishment could end and prisons would be turned into schools. That certainly sounds good, but it is wrong. This interpretation of Christ’s teachings is wrong.
The Sermon on the Mount was not given as a set of principles by which we govern our society. They are principles for individual Christians to be a light and example to the world.
If somebody means harm toward another, a police officer is not supposed to “turn the other cheek.” If we as a nation are attacked by a foreign power who wants to destroy us, we are not supposed to “go the extra mile.” There is a place for self-defense. There is a place for standing your ground. There is a place for protecting your citizens.
The biblical teaching of the Sermon on the Mount was given by Jesus for believers to live by—not for governments to govern by. The role of an individual is to practice mercy while the role of a government is to practice justice.
If you want to know how a society should be governed, look at Exodus 21. It is referenced by Jesus when he says. “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’” Exodus 21 continues: “hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.” This was the Hebrew civic justice system. Its purpose, according to Deuteronomy 19:20, was so that “the rest will hear and be afraid, and will never again do such an evil thing among you” (NASB).
Justice under this arrangement was never carried out by the victim, but by the legal system. It was a merciful law because it limited judgment, matching the punishment to the offense.
God has established government. He has established the military. And He has even established the use of force when necessary. Romans 13 says, “Obey the government, for God is the one who put it there. All governments have been placed in power by God. So those who refuse to obey the laws of the land are refusing to obey God, and punishment will follow. For the authorities do not frighten people who are doing right, but they frighten those who do wrong. So do what they say, and you will get along well” (13:1–3 NLT).
And then speaking of the soldier (and in our case the police officer), the Bible says, “The one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer” (Romans 13:4 NIV).
A modern equivalent of the sword would perhaps be a gun. God delegates vengeance or the enforcing of justice to the government. Otherwise, evil people will dominate. So, according to Scripture, government, law enforcement, and military all have their place—a God-ordained place.
In fact, the Bible even uses a soldier as a model of what a Christian ought to be and how we should follow Jesus. 2 Timothy 2:3-4 says, “Endure suffering … as a good soldier of Christ Jesus. Soldiers don’t get tied up in the affairs of civilian life, for then they cannot please the officer who enlisted them” (NLT).
I bring this up because some would say the Bible teaches pacifism. “Jesus was the ultimate pacifist,” they say. Actually, that is not true at all. Jesus administered justice when He drove the moneychangers out of the temple with a whip and overturned their tables. He told His disciples of coming dangerous days when they would need swords, and Peter mentioned that they already had two swords among them (Luke 22:35-38). Why would they carry swords? For shish kabob? No. For self-defense.
It’s important that we have a correct understanding of these things. God has established human government to administer justice. It is acceptable for Christians to defend themselves and to exercise their rights. Even the apostle Paul, when he was falsely charged and beaten, exercised his rights as a Roman citizen. The Bible is not saying that the Christian is supposed to be some kind of a doormat.
Turn the Other Cheek
Having established what this passage doesn’t mean, let’s talk about what it does mean. This is the advice of Jesus for a specific situation in which a believer is being persecuted. These are principles for meeting the personal wrongs that come to those that follow Him.
There are times, for the sake of the kingdom and for the salvation of a soul, we should take the hit. We are to turn the other cheek. We should go the extra mile. The idea is to do what you can to reach a person with the gospel.
Paul said in Romans 12:19, “Beloved, do not avenge yourselves, but rather give place to wrath; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord” (NKJV).
Jesus tells us to turn the other cheek. This is not so much about someone just coming up and punching you in the face. It is more the idea of an insult that is offered. Back in these days to be slapped in the face was a deliberate insult—a demeaning and contemptuous act.
Our modern equivalent would maybe be to spit in someone’s face. It doesn’t physically hurt, but it is insulting and angering. It could be using certain words or gestures. When it happens, you want to do it back, or do something even worse. Jesus is telling you not to retaliate.
Is this easy advice to live by? Absolutely not. It is very hard. But even if you struggle with it, the objective is to try to win others to Christ. Jesus is saying, “Go further than they ask. Don’t just give them your tunic. Give them your cloak. Go the extra mile.”
Back in those days the Roman soldier had the right to ask any citizen to carry his armor for a Roman mile. Jesus says, “You know what? If they ask you to carry their armor, take it for the Roman mile and then go for an extra mile. So you do it for the glory of God.
Go further than that which is required. Do it for the sake of the gospel. Do it to win the hearing of the person that you are trying to reach. Try to turn your enemies into friends. Try to win them over. It blows people’s minds when they see a Christian willing to forgive. A Christian willing to turn the other cheek. A Christian willing to go the extra mile.
Will you be that Christian today?