The Bible and Self Defense – Part II

Matthew 5:38-42

Alan Lewis
Elon, North Carolina
January 2017

For the last few weeks, we have been studying case law in Exodus 21-22.  It is an unfamiliar section to most people. It contains some strange laws.  It has laws about an ox goring a person to death.  It has laws about a father selling his daughter into slavery.  It has laws about people having sex with animals.  It is a section that is almost never preached from the pulpit and you can see why.

Last week, we looked at what the Bible teaches about self-defense.  We looked at a case law dealing with a man who breaks into a house at night.  We learned three lessons from that passage.  We learned that self-defense is a right.

The Law of Moses clearly taught that you have a right to defend yourself and your family from physical danger.  We learned that punishment can be excessive.  We also learned that self-defense and revenge are two completely different things.

Today, we come to the fun stuff.  How does this apply to us today?  Is it still valid?  Are Christians still under this law?  The NT teaches that the law has been abolished.  We are not under the Law of Moses.  What does the NT teach about self-defense?  Does it say anything?  For the last few years, we have been studying some books in the OT.  Today, we want to look at what the NT says.

We know what Moses said.  Today, we want to look at what Jesus said about the matter.  Today, we want to look and see if He taught something entirely different.  Jesus was the one who taught that we are not to resist evil men.  He is the one who taught that we are to forgive people.  He is also the one who taught that if someone hits us, we are to turn the other cheek.  We want to look today at what would Jesus do.

The Greatest Sermon Ever Preached

Before we look at the passage, we have to get the context.  It is found in the Sermon on the Mount.  The Sermon on the Mount is found in Matthew 5-7. It is also found in Luke 6. The Bible does not call it “The Sermon on the Mount.” Augustine was the first one that we know who used that phrase and he lived in the fourth century.

I love the Sermon on the Mount. It has been called by many “the greatest sermon ever preached.” President Harry Truman once said, “There is not a problem in this country or the world that could not be solved by the principles of the Sermon on the Mount.”[1]  We can learn a lot about Jesus’ style of teaching from this sermon.  Most pastors do not preach this way today.  How was this sermon different from most sermons today?

1) This sermon was given outdoors

Matthew 5:1-2 says, “One day as he saw the crowds gathering, Jesus went up on the mountainside and sat down. His disciples gathered around him,  and he began to teach them” (NLT).  This sermon was not given in a church.  It was delivered outdoors on a small hill. It was completely spontaneous.  It was not a planned sermon.  It was not part of the regular weekly church service.

2) This sermon was given sitting down

Jesus went up on the mountainside and sat down (5:1 NLT). We do not do that today.  We stand up to teach or preach.  Jesus did not teach like a modern-day pastor or college professor.

He was Jewish and that was what the rabbis of his day did.  The teacher sat down and everyone else stood.  It was cultural.  We do the exact opposite today.  In our culture, the teacher stands and the students sit.

3) This sermon was short

Many preachers think that a great sermon has to be long.  It doesn’t.  That is a myth.  It is quality, not quantity.  Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address in under two minutes.  Martin Luther King’s “I have a Dream” speech was only seventeen minutes long.  The Sermon on the Mount looks long.  It is three chapters long but it took under fifteen minutes to deliver.

4) This sermon was engaging

Jesus got their attention with this sermon.  How did he do that?  He did it three ways.  First, He made it understandable.  He told them things they could understand.  He preached a sermon on their level.  He spoke to ordinary people.  He did not speak over their head.  He did not use technical language.

Second, He made it relevant.  He told them things that that applied to them and could relate to.  He covered relevant topics (anger, lust, violence, revenge, forgiveness marriage, divorce, remarriage, honesty).  He even gave some legal advice in this sermon.

Third, He made it interesting.  It was not boring. Some pastors today put people to sleep when they begin to preach.  James McDonald used to say that it is a sin to be boring, although I don’t think that he has a verse for that.  What we know for sure is that Jesus got their attention.

He used exaggeration. He said, “If your right hand offends you, cut it off.” “When you give to the poor, don’t announce it with trumpets.”  “If you call your brother a fool, you will be brought before the Supreme Court.”

He used humor.  Some of the things He said were funny.  He talked about a man criticizing some for having a speck in their eye when he has a large beam in his eye. He used examples from everyday life (birds, flowers).   They were the visual aids to the sermon.  He appealed to their own experience to teach them things.  He talked about how we give good gifts to our children.

It was a sermon that has everything in it.  There is teaching (e.g., about the Law, about how to pray and not to pray, about how to live the blessed life).  There is application. Don’t just hear these words but put them into practice like a wise man who built his house on a rock.

There is exhortation to do certain things (“Enter through the narrow gate”).  There is encouragement (“You are the light of the world.”). “You are the salt of the earth.” There is warning (Beware of false prophets”).

5) This sermon was convicting

It was convicting because it went straight to people’s hearts.  Jesus didn’t just talk about murder; he talked about anger.  He didn’t just talk about adultery; He talked about lust.

It was convicting because ti points out when we are complete hypocrites and many of those people are in churches.  They are religious people. “When you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do IN THE SYNAGOGUES” (6:2 NIV).

He said, “When you pray, do not be like the hypocrites for they love to pray standing IN THE SYNAGOGUES…to be seen by others” (6:5 NIV). He called other people with a very critical spirit HYPOCRITES (7:5). That is interesting.  Some of the most judgmental people you will ever meet are found in church.

6) This sermon was authoritative

Jesus spoke with authority.   We see that at the end of the sermon.  What does that mean?  Someone who speaks with authority, not only has conviction and confidence, he has knowledge.  He knows what he is talking about.  An expert in a particular field can speak with authority.  I cannot speak with authority on cooking or gardening.

Jesus did not just give opinions.  He gave truth and He contradicted other people who did not know what they were talking about.  Over and over in this sermon, we see the words, “You have heard it said… but I say to you.”  Jesus says this six times in the sermon (5:21, 27, 31-32, 33, 38-39, 43-44).

7) This sermon was shocking

Jesus said some things in this sermon that were shocking.  He said that the Pharisees were not saved.  “For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven” (5:20 NIV).

If you have to surpass the righteousness of the Pharisees to get into heaven, then they are not getting in.  They were the most religious people on the planet.  They kept all of the rules and they were not going to make it in?  He also said that many people who think they are going to heaven are not going and that includes many professing Christians who call Jesus Lord.

He said, “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. 12 Rejoice and be glad” (5:11-12 NIV)  He said, “Be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect” (5:48).  These are shocking statements.  “Love your enemies” is shocking.  “Turn the other cheek if someone slaps you” is also shocking.  It’s radical.

Turn the Other Cheek

38“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’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. 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).

Before we can look at the command to turn the other cheek, we have to get the context of the passage.  Jesus begins with a teaching that he opposes You have to get this.  Some preachers get this wrong.

What did Jesus mean when he said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’  Who said that? Where did they hear this?   Moses said it three times (Exodus 21:23-25; Leviticus 24:17-20; Deuteronomy 19:21).

The most common interpretation is that this is a contrast between Jesus and Moses.  Moses said one thing but Jesus said something else.  Moses taught an eye for an eye.  It was violent.  It was barbaric.  It was vindictive.  Jesus taught love and forgiveness.  It sounds right.  It contains a direct quote from the OT.  Most preachers would agree with it.  There is one small problem.  It does not fit the context.

Notice what Jesus says at the very beginning of the chapter.  “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (5:17 NIV).  He said that did not come to abolish an eye for an eye.

He also said, “Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven” (5:18 NIV). Jesus said that He was not setting aside this command.  He said it in the same chapter.

If He was not quoting Moses, whom was He quoting?  The phrase “an eye for an eye” used to mean one thing and later it came to mean something else.  It used to be used in a court setting.  Judges were to use it as a rule to punish criminals.  That was the original context.

In Jesus day and in our day, it came to mean something completely different.  It was used to justify vengeance and retaliation.  An eye for an eye on the personal level means to get back at someone and get revenge.  When I was younger, I used to love action movies.  We like to watch revenge movies.  The good guy wins in the end.

They all have the same basic plot. The first ten minutes, the villain in the movie slaughters some innocent people.  The rest of the movie, the main character slaughters everyone else and gets revenge.  The actors are different (e.g., Bruce Lee, Chuck Norris) but the theme is the same.

The truth is, when someone wrongs us, we want to get even.  We want the other person to suffer. That is the natural response.  It is not easy to forgive people. We want to take revenge.  If someone hits us, we want to hit back.  Yasser Arafat, former head of the PLO, once said, “We don’t believe in turning the other cheek.  If someone hits us in the cheek, we hit back twice as hard.”

Jesus calls us to a higher standard. “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’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.”

A Misunderstood Verse

This is one of the most misunderstood verses in the Bible.  What does it mean?  Does it mean that we are to turn the other cheek to bullies?  Should battered wives just turn the other cheek?  Jesus said that we are not to resist evil men?  Does it mean that we are not to resist Hitler?  Does that mean that we are not to resist terrorists?  Does it mean that we are not supposed to defend ourselves if someone hits us?  We need to keep several things in mind here.

1) This was addressed to individuals, not nations.

In 2006 Barack Obama said (before becoming President) that Sermon on the Mount was so “radical” the Defense Department wouldn’t survive its application.  The Sermon on the Mount was addressed to individuals, not nations or organizations. In fact, the Apostle Paul said that one of the jobs of the state is to punish evil-doers or criminals (Romans 13:1-4).

One of the jobs of the state is to resist evil people.  The Apostle Paul said in Romans 13 that the state has the power of the sword.  It is to do the exact opposite of what Jesus said in Matthew 5.  Hitler was not defeated by love.  He was defeated by force.

This command is for individuals.   You can tell that by the personal pronouns used here.  “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.  And if anyone wants to sue YOU and take YOUR shirt, hand over YOUR coat as well.”

2) This had nothing to do with self defense.

This was a slap, not a punch.  A slap in the face hurts.  It is humiliating but it is not a life threatening situation.  It will not kill you. A slap in that day was a form of an insult, specially this kind of a slap.  It was a backhanded slap.  Most people are right handed.  This was a slap with the right hand. This verse tells you how to deal with insults, not how to defend yourself.

3) This was an example of exaggeration

It is hyperbole.  It was not meant to be taken literally.  How do we know?  Jesus did not interpret this literally.  He did not turn the other cheek when He was slapped. Why didn’t Jesus practice what he preached?  This was not to be taken literally.[2]  Jesus did not just turn the other cheek and wait to be hit on the other side.  He stood up for himself and confronted his abuser.

Meanwhile, the high priest questioned Jesus about his disciples and his teaching. “I have spoken openly to the world,” Jesus replied. “I always taught in synagogues or at the temple, where all the Jews come together. I said nothing in secret. Why question me? Ask those who heard me. Surely they know what I said.”

When Jesus said this, one of the officials nearby slapped him in the face. “Is this the way you answer the high priest?” he demanded. “If I said something wrong,” Jesus replied, “testify as to what is wrong. But if I spoke the truth, why did you strike me?” (John 18:19-23 NIV).

Sell your Coat and Buy a Weapon

Jesus did not tell people that they could never defend themselves.  In fact, in Luke 22, he actually told His disciples to buy a sword.  Luke 22:35-37 says, “Then Jesus asked them, “When I sent you without purse, bag or sandals, did you lack anything?” “Nothing,” they answered.

He said to them, “But now if you have a purse, take it, and also a bag; and if you don’t have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one. It is written: ‘And he was numbered with the transgressors’; and I tell you that this must be fulfilled in me. Yes, what is written about me is reaching its fulfillment” (NIV).

That is one of the strangest verses in the Bible.  Jesus told his disciples  to buy a sword. Jesus told them to pack heat. He told his disciples to arm themselves.  A sword was a weapon.  It was used to kill people.  The Roman government used the sword to execute people.

The same Greek word is used by Paul in Romans 13:4 of the state (μάχαιρα).  If they could not afford a sword, He told them to sell their clothes and buy one.  Here, Jesus tells missionaries to buy swords, not to force people to convert, like Muhammad did.  He used the sword to spread his religion.  Jesus told them to buy a sword to defend themselves.  Most people do not know this is in the Bible.

This doesn’t mean that Jesus endorsed violence.  Jesus did not tell them to go overboard. He said that two was enough (Luke 22:38).  He also said, “If you live by the sword, you will die by the sword” (Matthew 26:52).  He did not encourage his followers to stockpile weapons.  He said that two was enough (Luke 22:38).  He did not endorse violence but He did approve of self defense.  A plain reading of the text indicates this.

Many do not like this verse and come up with all kinds of ways to get around it.  Some they say that the sword must be symbolic. The problem is that all of the other things in the verse are literal (purse, bag, sandals), so this must be as well.

If it is symbolic, it would be symbolic of protection from danger, since that was the purpose of a sword. We would not use a sword today.  Today, we might use pepper spray or a gun instead.

Buy a Sword to Fulfill Prophecy?

There is another interpretation of this verse in Luke 22.  It is very common.  It is all over the Internet.  It is completely false but is a very popular view in some circles.  According to some, Jesus did not tell his disciples to buy a sword (22:36) to defend themselves but to fulfill prophecy, as text seems to say immediately afterwards (22:37).

They argue that it was illegal to carry a sword in Rome.  The idea would be that Jesus told them to buy swords so they could play the role of transgressors and appear as criminals in order to fulfill Scripture, so Jesus could be arrested.  According to this view, Jesus was crucified because he was armed.[3]

This view is wrong about history.  It is wrong about Jesus.  It is also wrong about prophecy.  First, there is no evidence that it was illegal to carry a small sword in Jerusalem.  It was common for travelers in the Roman Empire.  Owning weapons does not make you lawless or a criminal.  Travelers used them to defend against robbers and wild animals.

Second, if it was illegal, Jesus would be telling his disciples to break the law, which would make Jesus a criminal Himself.  This view is so preposterous it has Jesus committing a crime in order to fulfill biblical prophecy.  If that were the case, Jesus could not die for transgressors.  He would be one Himself.

Contrary to this interpretation, Jesus did not want to give the authorities the idea that He was leading a rebellion against Rome.  In fact, He said in this chapter that He was not doing that. He says in Luke 22:52, “Am I leading a rebellion that you have come with swords and clubs?”  That does not sound like someone who wanted to be viewed by the authorities as a criminal.

Three, the disciples are NOT the fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah, the robbers were.  He was crucified between two thieves.  He was killed with two common criminals.  In Mark 15:28, the statement “He was numbered with the transgressors” (MT) is found in the context of the crucifixion between two real criminals or transgressors. Keep in mind that Mark was written before Luke historically.

[1] Harry S. Truman, Radio Address, October 30, 1949.

[2] Jesus did not take it literally and neither did Paul (Acts 23:2-5).


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