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The Life of Jesus - Series 4: Episode 9

The rights and wrongs of self-defence

| Martin Charlesworth
Matthew 5:38-42
Luke 6:27-31

Jesus teaches against using force to defend oneself as an individual. The Christian is to trust God and show grace just as Jesus did.

Jesus teaches against using force to defend oneself as an individual. The Christian is to trust God and show grace just as Jesus did.


Hello, welcome back as we continue in Series 4 on the Sermon on the Mount and we're looking at 'the rights and wrongs of self defence'. Our text today is Matthew 5: 38 - 42. There's a parallel passage in Luke 6: 27 - 31. We're going to base ourselves in Matthew's account as we continue this exciting series on the Sermon on the Mount.

Introduction and Recap

As I've introduced the other episodes so far, I have reminded us as we start, that the Sermon on the Mount comes relatively early in Jesus ministry after he has had a successful tour of Galilee, and critically, after he's just appointed the 12 Apostles as his primary colleagues to advance his mission. The Sermon on the Mount starts with a focus on attitudes - the Beatitudes. Then Jesus describes the fact that he's going to fulfil the Old Testament Law of Moses. This is a really important foundation, particularly for the sections we're looking at in the episodes just before and after this one, where in Matthew 5: 17 to 20, he says he's not going to abolish the Law of Moses, he's going to fulfil it. That means redefine it and also correct some misunderstandings about the Law of Moses. Some things will no longer be applicable; some will be applicable in a deeper way. Today we come to one of the most important ethical issues that Christians face and it's about self defence; it's about resisting evil; it's about violence; it's about human relationships between people and families and clans and nations and societies; and it's an issue that faces us wherever we live in the world, in whatever context we are Christian disciples. This text is really important. We're going to go through it carefully and try and understand it in its original context, very specifically, as we proceed today. The Sermon on the Mount is basically giving us the foundational ethics for discipleship. It is one of the most important texts in Jesus' whole ministry.

Well-Known Sayings

Let's read first of all the passage that we're going to study. It's Matthew 5: 38 - 42.

38“You've 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.’

Matthew 5:38-42, NIV

All of us will probably agree, this is one of the most challenging passages in the whole New Testament. It's quite difficult for us to embrace what Jesus is saying about our discipleship calling, in terms of the apparent way he says that we are to allow certain evil things to happen to us, and even to expect that they will happen to us. We need to explain this passage and get to its meaning very carefully. Our starting point is the quotation that Jesus gives, ‘At the beginning, you heard that it was said, eye for an eye and tooth for tooth.’ That's a very famous expression isn't it? It's gone into common usage in many different languages, certainly in the English language. We use it as we discuss things in human relationships today.

Original Context

But what matters for us is to find the original context of this statement, which is a quotation from the Law of Moses - the first five books of the Bible. We've discussed the Law of Moses in previous episodes. We looked at it very closely when we looked at Matthew 5:17 - 20, which I mentioned earlier on. The Law of Moses had over 600 commands and was considered God's law for the people of God at that particular time. This is a particular quotation and we're going to look at it in its original context. Exodus 21: 22 - 25 is the original context. I think it's helpful to read the context and reflect on what it's saying to its original hearers. This is in a section in the Law of Moses which deals with personal injuries, so of fight and conflicts and injuries that take place between people in society. Here is what it says, Exodus 21: 22 - 25,

22“If people are fighting and hit a pregnant woman and she gives birth prematurely but there is no serious injury, the offender must be fined whatever the woman's husband demands and the court allows. 23But if there is a serious injury, you are to take life for life, 24eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, 25burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.’

Exodus 21:22-25, NIV

The first thing to notice about this passage is that this is about what the law courts allow. The court is mentioned here in verse 22. This is not about individual decisions to respond to an injury by fighting back, or gaining revenge; it's not what individuals do as individuals that's being discussed here. It's what the court will allow when an injury or an offence has occurred. We think of this in terms of, if someone does something to me then I'm going to do something to him, like an individual conflict, but the context here is the judicial process of Israel. The local courts dealt with these personal injury claims and they allowed for an eye for an eye, or a tooth for tooth. In other words, an equivalent punishment for the person who has committed the offence, or the act of violence. The point about this is, first of all the seriousness of the original offence, and secondly the fact this prevented a vendetta, or a gradually increasing series of acts of revenge, which is commonly what happens in society when people are left to themselves in many of our cultures, particularly cultures that focus on honour and shame. If you insult a member of my family, then I must take an act of revenge against you or a member of your family and then your family wants to do something against me. The whole thing escalates and it increases in intensity. Many of us, in our different cultures around the world, will be familiar with this cycle, where shame is brought on a family by a particular action; their honour needs to be upheld and so an act of revenge takes place. This can scale up and increase in intensity and often leads to what we call honour killings. This is not for private application. This is the court saying, if this act has been done, here is an equivalent punishment for that person who committed it, and that is the end of the matter. It is not a matter for individuals to decide to continue, to increase the vendettas and revenge.

Jesus' Discipleship Principles

The problem with this was that at the time of Jesus, people often used this text that I've mentioned from Exodus, as a justification for individual acts of revenge. What Jesus is doing here is, he's redefining this totally. He's introducing a new ethic for Christians, a new principle of dealing with conflicts. It starts with the principle that we are not to resist an evil person. A little more about the context is necessary in order to understand this. The context suggests that the evil person is hostile to Christianity. This is about acts of hostility by people against Christians because of their faith. We might call this persecution in a small or large way. Jesus is thinking about the fact that his disciples are going to be opposed in Israel very shortly. They're going to become unpopular with the authorities and there will be acts against them. There will be things that people do against them and he lists some of the things that are likely to happen. He gives a very specific answer as to what people should do in each of these cases.

Let's go through these because he outlines four different situations of things that may happen, bearing in mind these hadn't happened yet to the disciples. It was early days; the followers of Jesus were in a situation where Jesus was immensely popular and successful in Galilee. People loved him; they flocked to hear his teaching; his healings were spectacular and brought great adulation to him. The disciples were having an easy time but Jesus anticipated that as his message became clearer - his message that demanded obedience, repentance, faith in him, turning from evil actions - as that developed then his followers would not always be popular and some people would single them out to undermine them and to attack them in different ways.


Here are a few examples: verse 39

‘But I tell you do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek turn to them the other cheek also.’

Matthew 5:39, NIV

Here we're talking about a personal insult. In many societies, even today, to slap somebody on the cheek is an intended serious public insult. It's humiliating and the natural response is to attack that person back. But Jesus says, no, turn the other cheek. Allow the insult. Don't get defensive when you are insulted for your faith. That's difficult; that takes moral courage and self-control. Jesus is preparing his disciples for a time when this will be a common experience. People will insult them, either verbally or with physical actions, such as a slap on the cheek or something similar.


The second thing that Jesus speaks about here, in verse 40, is something slightly different:

‘And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well.’

Matthew 5:40, NIV

This is an unjustified lawsuit. He talks here about suing them, someone who wants to take them to court, perhaps even does take them to court, because of their faith, with some unjustified claim against them, demanding physical goods of them. Jesus said that we should even allow unjustified lawsuits. If we are being attacked for our faith then we shouldn't be defensive in that situation; an occasional attack of this nature is to be responded to by grace, kindness and the willingness to share our goods. What Jesus suggests here is absolutely amazing and incredible - a form of openness and vulnerability that many Christians find hard to imagine. The early disciples did live in this kind of way, trusting in God primarily to protect them, rather than trusting in their own ability to protect themselves.


The third example, in verse 41, is something different again.

‘If anyone forces you to go 1 mile, go with them 2 miles.’

Matthew 5:41, NIV

The Roman mile is approximately 1.5 km. Who is it that could ask you to go with them for 1 mile or 1 1/2 km? The background here is that the Roman army - the occupying force in Israel at the time - had the right to ask any citizen of the country to carry a load for them for the distance of one Roman mile - 1 1/2 km. It was allowed; it was a regular thing to do. Sometimes it was done just for convenience of the soldiers; sometimes it was done just to humiliate the Jewish people. The Roman army was very unpopular and people would want to resist this possibility of soldiers approaching them on the street and say, ‘Right you've got to carry my bags for 1 1/2 km up the road. Here they are, get on with it, I'm coming behind you,’ they've got a sword - very humiliating. Jesus says, allow yourselves to be humiliated even offer to go the 2nd mile - not just 1 1/2 km but 3 kms. This is really astonishing - an openness, a vulnerability, a lack of wanting to defend ourselves. This is something that Jesus said would characterise true Christian discipleship, true followers of Jesus. I'm sure as we're going through all these examples, you're thinking as I'm thinking, can I live this way? What happens if this happens to me? Isn't this too risky? Shouldn't we be much more self defensive and assertive, if we come under this kind of pressure? Jesus is encouraging us to think in the opposite kind of way and it's based on trust in God as our defender, as we shall discuss a little bit as we come towards the end of this episode.  


The fourth one is in verse 42,

‘Give to the one who asks you, do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you’

Matthew 5:42, NIV

This may be a reference to poor people in the country, who consider that Christians are generous and kind and share their possessions; it may be a reference to people a little more malicious who've got plenty of resources but they think Christians are easily influenced to give away their money to them. In either case, it's a remarkable statement here. It's encouraging us to be generous to those people who apparently have need. Some of us live in societies where very few people like that are seen around on the street; some of us live in countries where there are thousands and thousands of people living on the streets and living in extreme poverty, in slums and shanty towns. How could we possibly apply this? Jesus doesn't exactly say what you should give to people and if you have a hundred people begging from you, clearly you can't supply them with finance. It's simply impossible. He doesn't say exactly what we should give. It requires wisdom. Sometimes we can give to people in a non-material way, if we haven't any material resources to share with them. The underlying principle here is that an attitude of openness to give and share with other people is part of this vulnerability and lack of self- defensiveness that Jesus is identifying as a core value of Christian discipleship in this passage. This is a massive contrast to the Jewish insistence on the principle ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’ and they justify personal revenge on the basis of this text. It was never intended to be used for personal revenge anyway, as we discussed when we looked at the original context in Exodus 21. Jesus refutes that completely, saying in a sense that he is bringing a new ethic, a new way of living. Do not resist an evil person, and the evil person is motivated in this context, by their opposition to Christian discipleship and being followers of Jesus. That's a key in order to understand this text.

This doesn't tell us anything about defending others, and we have a duty in society to defend other people. That's not what it's talking about here. What it's talking about is Christians being attacked for their faith in a number of different ways. Luke's account has one extra saying at the end which is not recorded in Matthew. Luke 6: 31, ‘Do to others, as you would have them do to you.’ Kindness, generosity, openness - these are things that should characterise our attitudes to other people: not taking up arms, getting violent, getting defensive, getting abusive, cursing people if they curse you, fighting in the streets. None of these things are part of Christian discipleship and if we live in an honour- shame culture, we realise that it's quite difficult for us to realise that there are occasions, as Christians, when we will be dishonoured for our faith and we don't have the freedom from Jesus to respond, in a matter of revenge, in the way that many honour-shame cultures allow.


This is surely one of the most challenging texts in the Sermon on the Mount. It requires real reflection, and prayer, to think how do I apply this in my own life. I know what it feels like to have people seeking to insult me for my faith. You've probably had that experience too. Maybe you've had more severe experiences of opposition than that. I'm going to spend a few minutes, as we come to our reflections at the end of this talk, trying to think about some applications and make some links between the original situation there and the sorts of situations that you or I may face in the 21st century, as Christian disciples in different nations of the world.

The first thing to remember is that Jesus is describing a situation where there is no state protection of the Christian community. When it started out, the followers of Jesus and the apostles in the book of Acts and the ministry of Paul, the state was not committed to defend the Church. The Church had no legal status in the Roman Empire for many years. It was considered an informal offshoot, or cult, from Judaism. No one was there to defend the Christians. This situation describes what to do when you haven't got the defence of the state. In many modern countries through legal processes, there are ways that the Church's identity and ministry and rights are secured, and we can call on the legal process and the government and the police to uphold those things which are in the law. In the early days, as described in this context, there was no such provision.

There's a further thing to say. What happens if the opposition to the church becomes so extreme that it becomes very difficult to live in a particular location, a particular part of your country, a particular society or even in a country as a whole? Christians throughout the ages have faced this issue. It's not directly addressed here but it's interesting that in Matthew 10: 23, when Jesus is talking to his apostles about their forthcoming mission in Israel, Matthew 10: 23, it says, ‘When you're persecuted in one place, flee to another.’ Alongside this text, which tells us how to deal with individual acts of opposition, if we get to a situation of general persecution where it's not practical, viable to live in a place, we also have the option of moving. It's a very traumatic and difficult option to move, to flee persecution but it happens. It's happening in our world in many different parts of the world as I give this talk in the early part of the 21st century. That may be true in your country, or in countries known to you. We need to balance these things together. If opposition arises within our culture, we deal with it graciously, and non-defensively. If it becomes intolerable and impractical for us to live, we have the option of fleeing to a safer place.

This passage also speaks to our attitudes. It speaks about avoiding an attitude of vengefulness, or defensiveness or anger against other people. As we'll see very shortly, Jesus goes on to say, ‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.’ This is a call to love your enemies by allowing these difficult acts to take place, and trusting God to deliver you from them. In a healthy society, the government, the police and the law court should defend you, and that's a perfectly reasonable thing to expect. As we work out how this passage was used in the early church, and how this teaching was used, let me bring to you two examples to think about. First of all, Jesus himself. If you actually analyse and study the life of Jesus, as we are doing now, and if you follow me through the whole of the Word Online teaching on Jesus, all 14 series, you'll find that Jesus, in a remarkable way, fulfils exactly what he teaches here. When he was insulted, he didn't take acts of revenge. When he was brought before the law courts and tried at the time of his trial at the end of his life, he allowed injustice to take place. Jesus modelled this lifestyle and it was based on a fundamental trusting God, his Father, to protect him. The second example I want to give you is of Paul, the apostle. Paul, as he travelled around the Roman Empire, had something in his favour. He had official citizenship of the Roman Empire which not many people did. Citizenship wasn't granted to many people. It involved a legal right that other people didn't have. When he, on one occasion, was on trial, as recorded in the book of Acts in Israel, at a place called Caesarea under the Roman authorities and he was being interrogated, after a bit he made this dramatic statement in Acts 25 verse 11: He said, ‘I appeal to Caesar the Emperor’. What he meant was, as a Roman citizen, he didn't want to be tried in that place, in Caesarea, he wanted to go to the imperial court in Rome, which was supervised by the Roman Emperor. He had a legal right to that situation. He appealed to it, and so he was sent to Rome. He wanted to get a fair hearing. These two examples suggest to us that, when we have civil society - the government, the police, the army, the judiciary - that give us protection, we should seek that out and use it to the best we can. If we don't, as Jesus didn't, then we have to trust God because there may not be any legal remedy for some of the things that happen to us. If that gets too severe for us, then sometimes Christian communities, and Christian families, have to move from one country to another.

Another important reflection, as we come to a conclusion, is that this passage doesn't talk to us directly about military service, or working in the police force of our nation. This speaks to us about how we function as individual private citizens who are disciples, when we are challenged, or attacked by other people, because of our faith. Whether we join military forces, or police forces, or not, in our nations, cannot be decided on the basis of this text alone. There are other important texts, such as the first few verses in Romans 13, that speak about the role of government and we have to think about that issue in that context. The gospel is not advanced by force; it is the power of the message and the power of the witness of the Christian community, and the power of the signs of God in that Christian community, that causes the church to advance. We're called to a radical lifestyle of trusting in God, and no more so than when our faith is being directly challenged by people who insult us, who want to take us to court, who want to take some of our possessions, who conscript us to do things like the Roman army could do with Jewish citizens. At that time the character of our faith stands out. Jesus truly calls us to radical discipleship and this is a key example of that discipleship. Do join us for the next episode, as we continue this discussion and we look at the important issue of loving your enemies and praying for those who persecute you, which is directly related to the passage that we've studied today. Thanks for joining and listening with us today.

Study Questions

The following questions have been provided to facilitate discussion or further reflection. Please feel free to answer any, or all the questions. Each question has been assigned a category to help guide you.

  • Exploring Faith
    Exploring Faith
    1. What examples of ‘family shame culture’ do you have in your society? How destructive is it?
  • Discipleship
    1. What 4 things did Jesus warn his disciples they would have to face. How did they react in the accounts found in the book of Acts? How do you cope with them?
    2. You are called to a life of trusting in God even when your faith is being directly challenged. Discuss your experience of this
    3. Pray for those who have had to move from their homes because of persecution in the world today.
  • Further Study
    Further Study
    1. The gospel is not advanced by force but by the message it brings but by lifestyle and character. How do you balance standing up for what you believe in and using force?
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