Matthew 5:39, what does it mean? Devotional Commentary

By Practical Christianity Foundation, (PCF)

Matthew 5:39, what does it mean?

The phrase "Turning the other cheek" is often cited as one of the weak points and impractical teachings of the Christian faith. Such conclusions are not without reason. Naturally, we instinctively respond with a counterattack or preemptive strike in self-defense whenever we are attacked or feel threatened. Because we want to preserve ourselves, we are always on the alert to defend ourselves. Are we wrong in defending ourselves? Would we be wrong if we take action to stop danger before we get hurt?

Most of us, Christians or otherwise, have misgivings about any statement which suggests to "turn the other cheek" because the obvious meaning of the expression in Matthew 5:39 seems to go against our commonsense perception of the text. Is Jesus instructing us to keep on turning the other cheek for more beating? If yes, then we would have some commonsense reason for questioning the validity of some of the Christian precepts we hear or read. If not, then what did Jesus mean when He made the statement? Fair enough!

We answer the above question with an emphatic no! Jesus did not instruct us to keep on turning the other cheek for more beating every time we come under attack. Some proponents of a literal rendering of "turning the other cheek" refer to Christ's suffering on the cross to support their interpretation of the statement in Matthew 5:39. That would be a sad and demeaning treatment of our Savior's work of redemption.

If we examine Matthew 5:39 in the context of Matthew 5:21-48, we realize that Jesus was making an unequivocal comparison of the Old Testament stipulations of the law against His message of grace and mercy proclaimed in the Gospels. As He did in Matthew 5 verses 21, 27, 31, 33, 43, 46-47, so does Jesus compare the stipulations of the law restated in Matthew 5:38 against His instruction in Matthew 5:39.

In Matthew 5:38 Jesus recaps the stipulations of the law, authorizing a retaliatory response of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. But in Matthew 5:39, Jesus says to turn the other cheek, not for more beating, but in order to be conciliatory in our attitude. That is, instead of getting even according to the law, we are to be conciliatory according to grace and mercy. Remember that God dealt with us in His redemption when He was perfectly just to condemn us according to the Law.

Jesus used a slap-in-the-face as an effective illustration to underscore what must be overcome in order to reflect a godly character in Christian response to ungodly behavior. That is, our conciliatory attitude should be strong enough to overcome those powerful emotions urging us to retaliate. So:

  • If we don't take the text out of context;
  • If we don't subject God's Holy and Living Word to our natural wits and commonsense ingenuity;
  • If, instead, we study Matthew 5:39 in the context of the sermon on the mount and the particular paragraph of verses 38-48;
  • If, above all, we prayerfully seek the help of the Holy Spirit Who is the only One Who leads us into all truths;
Then we learn that Jesus' words in Matthew 5:39 are more about Christian attitude in human relations than the how-to of Christian tit-for-tat when attacked or threatened.

The words of Jesus in Matthew 5:39 are not instructions on nonresistance or passivism. There are moments for a legitimate nonresistance or self-defense in the Bible, yes, even for the Christian. The essence of the message in Matthew 5:39 is clearly reflected in verse 45 where God is shown as loving, gracious, and merciful giving the rain and the sunshine both to the just and the unjust even though neither is deserving of God's grace.

The closing verse of the present text, unequivocally states: "Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect". It clearly reflects Jesus' message that, as Christians, we are to be perfect even as our Father in heaven is perfect. Huh?! How so?

Once redeemed, There is only one reason for the Christian to remain in this world, to live for Christ in an unreserved service. That is what Jesus did when He walked this earth. He lived on earth completely surrendered to His Father's will, fulfilling the purpose for which His Father sent Him to this world. So, as our attitudes and characters are being steadily comformed to the character and attitude of Jesus Christ, we are drawn away from the ways of our old nature in relating to those around us. We are made more like Jesus Christ in conduct and demeanor, as His perfectness becomes God's perfection in us. Because we are called into the ministry of reconciliation as the ambassadors of the Gospel, we serve God with a conciliatory demeanor instead of being retaliatory in our attitude.

It is hardly possible to be more loving, giving, helpful, etc., with a tightly guarded intense attitude of ready-to-strike-back at the hint of uncertainty. We are called to be conciliatory according to the grace of our redemption, instead of persisting as retaliatory according to our old nature. In "turning the other cheek", we turn away from our old nature and begin to conduct ourselves in the newness of God's grace by which we have been made alive in Christ.

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