One of the universal traits among sinful humans is the urge to retaliate—an urge that Martyn Lloyd-Jones referred to as “one of the most hideous and ugly results of the fall of man.” In Matthew 5:38–42, Jesus issues a radical call to believers to be salt and light by resisting this tendency.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus shares six “you have heard that it was said . . . but I tell you” sayings in which He corrects not the Old Testament law itself but certain misunderstandings and abuses of it. The Old Testament phrases “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” (Ex. 21:24; Lev. 24:20; Deut. 19:21) are just as misunderstood in our broader culture today as they were in Jesus’ day, frequently used as a reference to—or even justification for—revenge. At least three movies about revenge carry the title Eye for an Eye.
To understand Jesus’ radical call in this passage, we need to understand how “an eye for an eye” functioned in its old covenant context. First, along with ensuring that justice was done in response to harmful evil, the principle of “an eye for an eye” actually served to ensure that consequences were proportional to the crime and that punishment was appropriately limited. An eye for a tooth, or a life sentence for petty theft, would not be justice. Second, the principle of “an eye for an eye” was intended for public and legal justice carried out only by legitimate authorities and did not authorize retaliation by individuals (see Deut. 19:18–21).
non-retaliation as salt
Thus, Jesus’ instructions in Matthew 5:39–42 to not resist, to turn the other cheek, etc., do not negate these principles of public justice but rather speak to the way that this language was misapplied to justify personal retaliation. The Bible is consistent in its prohibition of revenge and retaliation in any circumstance (Lev. 19:18; Prov. 24:29; Rom. 12:19). Jesus has freed His people from bitterness toward others and from the impulse to retaliate, and He therefore calls disciples to a preservative, “salty” influence in society, promoting peace and breaking cycles of violence. As those who have the riches of God’s grace, who know the perfect (if not yet finalized) justice of God, and who live for the glory of God, Christians are free to respond to road rage, insults, and petty fraud with peace (Matt. 5:39), a willingness to lose (Matt. 5:40), and generosity (Matt. 5:41–42). Jesus Himself is our example in that “when he was reviled, he did not revile in return . . . but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly” (1 Peter 2:23).