What is the Meaning of Matthew 5.38-42

“Renouncing Retaliation” Personal Sacrifice not Demanding Rights

Matthew 5:38-42

INTRODUCTION What is the Meaning of Matthew 5.38-42

Matthew 5. Richard Weaver, born in 1827 in western England, was a part-time boxer who began his working life as a thirteen-year-old coal miner. His father was an ungodly drunkard, but his mother was a praying godly woman. He was eventually converted to Christ, but then his fellow miners provoked him constantly. For example, at the beginning of one shift in Denton, Tom, tried to steal his coal-wagon from him and take his coal, but the man was not strong enough to wrench it out of Richard’s grip.

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Richard relates that Tom said to Richard, ‘I’ve a good mind to smack thee on the face.’

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Richard replies, ‘Well, if that will do thee any good, thou [mayest].’ He then struck me on the face. I turned the [other] cheek to him, and said, ‘Strike again.’ He struck again and again till he had struck me five times. I turned my cheek for the sixth stroke; but he turned away cursing.

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I shouted after him, ‘The Lord forgive thee, for I do,’ and ‘the Lord save thee.’

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That was on a Saturday and when I went home from the coal-pit my wife saw my face swollen and asked what was the matter with it. I said, ‘I’ve been fighting and I have given a man a good thrashing.’ She burst out weeping and said, ‘O Richard, what made you fight?’ Then I told her all about it and she thanked the Lord I had not struck back. But that, through me, the Lord had struck and his blows have more effect than man’s.

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Monday came. The devil began to tempt me, saying, ‘The other men will laugh at thee for allowing Tom to treat thee as he did on Saturday.’ I cried, ‘Get thee behind me, Satan,’ and went on my way to the coal-pit. Tom was the first man I saw. I said, ‘Good morning,’ but got no reply. He went down in the mine first.

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When I got down, I was surprised to see him sitting on the wagon road waiting for me. When I came to him he burst into tears and said, ‘Richard, will you forgive me for striking you?’ ‘I have forgiven thee,’ said I. ‘Ask God to forgive thee. The Lord bless thee.’

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I gave him my hand and we went each to work. After a time I heard someone coming towards me, sobbing as he came. It was Tom! He couldn’t rest until he knew he was forgiven. “O Richard, do you forgive me?” “Yes,” replied Richard. “The Lord bless thee. Let us kneel down and ask God to forgive thee.” They got down on their knees and the Lord was with them in the coal-pit. He wounded and he healed and the man who came weeping went back rejoicing saying, “I am now happy in Jesus. Glory to God and the Lamb forever.”[1]

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Richard sacrificed himself and didn’t demand his rights and the Lord used that for eternal purposes. So, how should you react when you are wronged?

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Matthew 5:38–42 38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39 “But I say to you, do not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. 40 “If anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, let him have your coat also. 41 “Whoever forces you to go one mile, go with him two. 42 “Give to him who asks of you, and do not turn away from him who wants to borrow from you.

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The way you should respond is by not demanding your own rights to the point of self sacrifice and doing good to others.

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Previous passages in this section have dealt with our wrongdoing. But this passage is different. It’s about others doing us wrong. And let us not forget, Jesus is preaching here that He “might smack thee in the heart” as he did Tom that day! He’s aiming for your conviction. Just when you thought you were doing good, Jesus has to touch on this … “Look how you respond when someone is angry at you or gives you fighting words… just look at yourself! You’re retaliating!” No! … no personal revenge, self-sacrifice.

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  1. What they heard: Personal Vengeance (Matt. 5:38)

    Look at what the crowd that day Jesus was preaching had been taught, verse 38.

Matthew 5:38 38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’

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Jesus quotes the OT verse that makes up the Law called, the Law of retribution, or retaliation. What is righteous punishment when someone does wrong? This verse occurs in 3 verses in the OT. And keep in mind, Jesus is correcting the Jews’ misunderstanding of this OT phrase that occurs 3 times.

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The phrase occurs in Exod 21:24; Lev 24:20; Deut 19:21. You’re welcome to turn to each of them, beginning in Ex. 21:24. As I read these passages, we’ll ask 2 questions. (1 Who is in charge of the retaliation? And (2 Does the punishment fit the crime?

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In Exodus 21, this is Moses’ Law for the nation of Israel concerning harm done to a pregnant woman by accident by one of two fighting men.

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Exodus 21:22–25 22 “If men struggle with each other and strike a woman with child so that she gives birth prematurely, yet there is no injury, he shall surely be fined as the woman’s husband may demand of him, and he shall pay as the judges decide. 23 “But if there is any further injury, then you shall appoint as a penalty life for life, 24 eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, 25 burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.

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(1 Who is in charge of the retribution, the punishment? End of verse 22, the judges.

(2 Does the punishment fit the crime? Yes, exactly. If there is harm done, as I understand it, to the woman or to the child, then the exact same harm shall be done to the man who caused it.

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Lev. 24…What about in a case where someone curses the name of God or if a man injures his neighbour?

Leviticus 24:13–14 13 Then the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 14 “Bring the one who has cursed outside the camp, and let all who heard him lay their hands on his head; then let all the congregation stone him.

Leviticus 24:19–20 19 ‘If a man injures his neighbor, just as he has done, so it shall be done to him: 20 fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; just as he has injured a man, so it shall be inflicted on him.

Leviticus 24:23 23 Then Moses spoke to the sons of Israel, and they brought the one who had cursed outside the camp and stoned him with stones. Thus the sons of Israel did, just as the Lord had commanded Moses.

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(1 Who is in charge of the retribution, the punishment? End of verse 14, the congregation. Verse 23, the “sons of Israel.”

(2 Does the punishment fit the crime? Yes, exactly. If a man injures his neighbour, then the exact same harm shall be done to the man who caused it. It is carried out in a civil setting, not personal retaliation.

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Last passage where this phrase “eye for eye, tooth for tooth” occurs is Deut 19:18-21. What should you do when there is a false witness who accuses someone falsely?

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Deuteronomy 19:18–21 18 “The judges shall investigate thoroughly, and if the witness is a false witness and he has accused his brother falsely, 19 then you shall do to him just as he had intended to do to his brother. Thus you shall purge the evil from among you. 20 “The rest will hear and be afraid, and will never again do such an evil thing among you. 21 “Thus you shall not show pity: life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.

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(1 Who is in charge of the punishment? Verse 18, the judges.

(2 Does the punishment fit the crime? Yes, exactly. If someone falsely accuses, whatever the punishment would have been for the accused, that’s the punishment given to the false witness.

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That’s righteous.

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In each case, this was a civil punishment. This law is not allowing for personal revenge. It is a civil punishment, punishment from the law. There was to be no pity, but the punishment must fit the crime, no more, no less. The law of retribution prevented punishment that was too severe. It’s an “eye for an eye” and you can’t go beyond that.

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ILL: But if somebody does hit you and knock out one of your teeth, what is the natural human response to that? The natural human response is, not only to hit back, but to hit back harder than you were hit. If your tooth was knocked out, you could justify taking out 2 of his. And to him, that’s unjustified and so he knocks out 3 more of yours!

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Let’s cut that out! Leave it to the judges who are to enact a just punishment that fits the crime. An “eye for an eye.” So you can see then that this law prevented punishment that went beyond what was righteous.

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TRANS: That’s the OT Law. Now, why is Jesus quoting this from the OT?

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  1. What Jesus says: Personal Vengeance disallowed (Matt. 5:39-42)

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    Before we discuss what He’s teaching, let’s discuss what Jesus is not teaching.

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    Btw, these verses are considered to be hard sayings, are among the most difficult verses in the Bible, have been described as impossible to practice, and even as commands for another world. Not easy to understand nor to do!

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    First, he is not rejecting the equitable law of retaliation for a nation or society.

    When Jesus quotes this law in verse 38 and then in verse 39 says, “but I say to you, turn the other cheek,” He is not rejecting the punishment-must-fit-the-crime law of retaliation for a nation.

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    This has been interpreted to mean that what Jesus is doing is saying that a nation should not allow the death penalty, for example. I mean, “you’ve heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye’ but I say to you don’t resist an evil person, turn the other cheek.” In other words, no death penalty, no civil punishments, no armies and no policeman even. Because policeman resist evil people for a living.

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    ARG: Clearly, Jesus is not rejecting the “eye for an eye” principle for national or civil law. Nations and communities don’t have a collective cheek.

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    Second, Jesus is also not suggesting leniency in cases of civil disobedience. The judge isn’t to say, “Just turn the other cheek, give him your coat.” Deut. 19:21 again…21 “Thus you shall not show pity: life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.

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    Law courts are not for pity or leniency, but justice. Jesus is not advocating leniency.

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    ILL: I read of one theft ring in our county and 4 individuals were accused of stealing $150,000 to $300,000 worth of equipment over the span of 7 years. One man got out after serving 11 months in jail and a fine of $400. $400 fine plus free food for a year for stealing $150,000. Now, if the righteous OT Law of retribution was in place, the 4 would have at least had to pay back the $150,000+ worth of stolen goods or better…

Exodus 22:1 1 “If a man steals an ox or a sheep and slaughters it or sells it [or sends the vehicles to a chop shop to sell the parts], he shall pay five oxen for the ox and four sheep for the sheep.

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So, pay back 4 times $150,000, $600,000 …that’ll prevent theft.

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No, Jesus isn’t saying be lenient on criminals and demand that society turn the other cheek. Criminals need to be rightly punished. Children also need to be rightly disciplined, as if mom should turn the other cheek. Jesus is not teaching leniency.

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Third, Jesus is also not teaching pacifism.

ILL: Mahatma Gandhi, a hindu who lead the Indian independence movement against British rule, employed non-violent resistance to attain it. He was greatly influenced by this passage of the Sermon on the Mount and by Leo Tolstoy, a Russian writer, one of the greatest authors of all time. Tolstoy too was greatly influenced by these verses. Ghandi taught that in a perfect nation, prisons would be turned to schools and punishment would end.

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Ghandi said, “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.” National wars and criminal punishment just makes everyone blind, he thought. What is truly revealing is Gandhi’s position toward Hitler and the Nazis. First off, as the Holocaust was in full swing, Gandhi decided to write Hitler a letter. In the letter, he refers to Hitler as his “friend.” While he condemns Hitler’s war and the actions toward the Jews, he assures Hitler, “Nor do we believe that you are the monster described by your opponents.”

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Gandhi wrote to the British who are fighting Hitler’s Germany, writing, “This manslaughter must be stopped. You are losing; if you persist, it will only result in greater bloodshed. Hitler is not a bad man.”

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What Gandhi failed to realize is when dealing with murderous barbarians such as Hitler or ISIS, no level of non-violent resistance will ever change their minds. Gandhi’s philosophy would only guarantee that they take over the world.[2]

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Clearly, Jesus isn’t teaching pacifism. He is not rejecting the equitable law of retaliation for a nation or society. Crime deserves punishment. Jesus is also not suggesting leniency in cases of civil disobedience. And Jesus isn’t teaching pacifism.

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This is clear from just a few verses earlier in Matthew 5:25-26, where Jesus recognizes the existence and purpose of national law and judicial punishment. He speaks there of someone “being handed over to the judge and the judge to the officer and then being thrown into prison.” That’s punishment that fits the crime, equitable law of retaliation.

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We also know that Jesus isn’t teaching these things because Romans 13 teaches that the government is from God. It is the servant of God for good. Ro. 13:4, It is to “bear the sword” and bring wrath on the one who practices evil. So Jesus isn’t teaching leniency when we’re talking about a sword used to remove life.

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And pacifism simply misunderstands the utter depravity of the human heart. “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind” smacks of not punishing evil doers and sounds righteous and compassionate, but it doesn’t understand the need for justice. Laying down in front of ISIS won’t solve their sin problem before God!

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So what is Jesus teaching?

Jesus is rejecting revenge, personal vengeance and teaching personal sacrifice and not demanding your rights. Do not seek revenge, work for the good of those who would do you wrong, and go beyond the call of duty, expecting nothing in return!

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What could have happened is that the Jews by this time have brought the Law of Retaliation out of the law courts onto the streets and used it to justify getting revenge on people. Keep in mind at this time, Israel is an occupied country. The Romans are in control. Then some unrighteous thing happen….”Let’s take the law into our own hands!” comes the cry. “He hurt me, I’ll hurt him! An eye for an eye!” “He knocked out my tooth, I’ll knock his tooth out.” No, don’t take the law into your own hand!

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Again, Jesus is not doing away with the law, but correcting false beliefs about it.

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Matthew 5:38–39 38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’ [It’s for the nation, but you’ve been thinking that you could exact personal revenge…] 39 “But I say to you, do not resist an evil person….

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And then Jesus gives 4 examples of personal, nonresistance in verses 39-42. Physical nonresistance v.39, legal nonresistance in v.40, government nonresistance in verse 41, and monetary nonresistance in verse 42.

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And not only are you not to resist, but you have a positive response in each as well. 1) Verse 39, receive multiple unrighteous attacks 2) v.40, Part with possessions 3) v. 41, Genuinely serve under unjust government regulations and 4), v.42 be generous to all.

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And I’m wondering if these verse don’t combine to form the following, “Do not seek revenge (v.39), work for the good of those who would do you wrong (v.40), and in this go beyond the call of duty (v.41), expecting nothing in return (v.42)!

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Each illustration is personal; he’s talking to you (singular)! So again, this isn’t a passage about how to craft public policy; this is how you are to conduct yourself in your day to day life. On a personal level, there is a righteousness that exceeds “eye for an eye” kind of mentality. There is no room for personal retaliation or revenge in Christ’s kingdom and plenty of room for Christian responses.

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A righteous law court should give a punishment that fits the crime.

But a righteous person must not resist an evil person.

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POINT: The major point of these 4 illustrations is self-sacrifice, do good to those who do you wrong. And these are principles and I know we have questions about them. Romans 12:21 summarizes it well…21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. Illustration #1…

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  1. Physical nonresistance: Don’t retaliate

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Matthew 5:39b … “but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also.”

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EXP: In the Middle East then and today, this was a great insult. For a right-handed person to slap you on your right cheek would take a backhanded slap. Under Jewish law for this, you can seek restitution in court. 200 zuz for a fronthanded slap and 400 for a backhanded slap. [3]

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And if you were unjustly attacked, it would appear righteous to strike back in this manner. But instead of taking them to court, prepare yourself to suffer again.

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This is a principle. Don’t retaliate, don’t even raise your voice!

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However, we know that it is not wrong to protest an assault on your person. During one of Jesus’ trials before his crucifixion, one of the officers hit Jesus, presumably in the face. But Jesus answers, “If I have spoken wrongly, testify of the wrong; but if rightly, why do you strike Me?”

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But clearly even though Jesus was verbally abused, he did not verbally abuse in return. While he was suffering, he did not threaten anyone, 1 Pet. 2:23.

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NOT: So Jesus is not talking about a physical attack so as to cause you serious loss of your body or your loved ones. Jesus is not saying you can’t protect yourself or your family from true harm.

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APP: What Jesus is teaching is don’t assert your rights even under the law to retaliate. Under the law, you could take that person to court. Rather, be willing to be defrauded. Why not rather be wronged, Paul asks in 1 Co. 6, than bring harm to Christ’s cause? Is there not a wise man who can decide? In other words, there is a way to do this without bringing harm on the cause of Christ. Suing someone under some circumstances may do that!

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Now, there are times when taking someone to court to seek damages is a justice for society, but if it’s out of personal revenge, it is against Jesus’ teaching here. Do not demand personal rights.

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ILL/APP: A man guns down a blind woman’s brother. When the blind woman finds out, she says in court to her brother’s killer, “The first thing I did was to ask God to forgive you, because you didn’t know what you were doing.” That’s what our attitude needs to be toward others, Jesus attitude, “Father forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.”

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APP: If you’re loved one or friend pushes your buttons, don’t push them back! Don’t retaliate. If she yells at you, don’t yell back. Don’t punish your spouse with a cold shoulder, withholding affection. Don’t punish others with your words or actions when you feel wronged!

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TRANS: Now, that’s if someone does you wrong and you could take them to court. What about when someone sues you?

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  1. Not only don’t retaliate, work for the good of those who would do you harm

    Not only don’t retaliate, work for the good of those who would do you harm.

Matthew 5:40 40 “If anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, let him have your coat also.

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EXP: In those days, they could do that to the poor, take your shirt. But according to Exodus 22:25-27 and Deuteronomy 24:10-13, you could not permanently take the coat from the poor because he would need it that night to sleep in.

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“If they sue you for your shirt and win it, give them your coat too, even though they can’t even legally take it.”

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So, even if you’re extremely poor, give them even more property than what they are suing you for.

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APP: That sounds so unreasonable! But let’s think about what this would do. It would reveal the true nature of this unrighteous lawsuit and hopefully convict the person of his sin. Righteous deeds to someone who is harming you can convict them.

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APP: Rather than getting carried away with the details however, I think the point is that we are to reject retaliation, and instead do good to those who are against you.

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TRANS: Don’t retaliate, do good to those who would do you wrong. And third, go beyond the call of duty in this.

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  1. Go beyond the call of duty

Matthew 5:41 41 “Whoever forces you to go one mile, go with him two.

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According to 1st century law, whenever a Roman soldier asked anyone within the Empire to carry something for him for a mile, they had to do it regardless. You could imagine reasons for refusing to obey the law. Maybe you are on your way to work and you’re almost late!

This could be what Simon of Cyrene experienced when they compelled him to carry Jesus’ cross.

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But if a Roman soldier asks you, a Jew, … By the way the Romans took over the land of Israel during the previous century, and now the soldier has the audacity to ask you… No, to compel you and command you to carry his luggage for a mile…This guy’s grandfather may have killed my grandfather in the war, and I’m supposed to carry his stuff!?

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How tempting it would be to mock and to scoff!

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But instead of refusing to obey the law, go beyond and do even more good to the one who would do you harm!

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APP: No matter what unjust law, if it doesn’t contradict Christ’s teaching, it’s not a problem. It’d be much harder as a Jew to obey that Roman law than for you to obey any law Canada could give you.

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APP: And if a Christian were to obey that law and joyfully serve that Roman solider, he’d think, “What planet did you come from? We take over you land and you’re joyfully serving me?” That reaches hearts!

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*APP: But again, without getting bogged down by the details, I think the main point on this one is this: Go beyond the call of duty in doing good to those who would wrong you!

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TRANS: Don’t retaliate, do good to those who would do you wrong, even go beyond the call of duty, and don’t expect anything in return, “Give!”

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  1. Expect Nothing in Return

Matthew 5:42 42 “Give to him who asks of you, and do not turn away from him who wants to borrow from you.

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Jesus kingdom is not filled with stingy people who fail to give to those in need. Those in Jesus kingdom aren’t asking themselves, “what do I get out of this exchange?”

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ILL/APP: To get bogged down in the details for a moment, obviously, you wouldn’t give money to a dunk. When I was at Bible school, my society went to Atlanta to witness to people on the street. Many of the men were homeless and would ask for money. We weren’t allowed to and so I didn’t, but I offered a meal and one accepted and I gave him a tract and dealt with his soul. Many people like that won’t receive a meal, they only want money to buy things they ought not. Don’t give money to the wrong people.

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ARG: Prov. 11:15; 17:18; 22:26 teach that you shouldn’t give money to people who will destroy you with it! Don’t guarantee a debt or co-sign on a loan for someone.

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And so here we gain a little more clarity. These verses are almost proverbial. They are principles. The principle is love. If you turn the other cheek or give up your coat or go the 2nd mile and it doesn’t result in loving your neighbor, then it is not good.

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Clearly Jesus doesn’t want you to give money to someone if it is going to destroy them! So what is Jesus point?

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Jesus kingdom is not filled with stingy people who fail to give to those in need, yes. But I think the principle fits with the 3 previous points. Don’t retaliate, do good to those who would harm you, go beyond the call of duty in this, and don’t expect anything in return when you do it! Give!

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Jesus said…Luke 6:35 “But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return…”

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CONCLUSION What is the Meaning of Matthew 5.38-42

This passage is meant for conviction. You don’t get to “get even” in this life (v.39). You can’t hit back, you can’t retaliate. In fact you do good to those who would do you wrong (v.40). And you would even go beyond the call of duty doing it (v.41)! All the while expecting nothing in return (v.42).

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And how wicked you are that you can’t get passed to the first one. You retaliate and not to enemies, to those whom you love and you feel like it is your right when you get angry at them! That’s your sin nature talking…No! Take the hit and love them back in return, going beyond the call of duty, and don’t expect them to do the same!

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And your sense of justice and personal revenge is riled and provoked and you balk at it, “Well, she just freaks out when I raise my voice a little bit.” Or, “But if I do it that way, then they’ll just walk all over me.” This shows how much of a sinner you are! And how selfish you are!

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Only when you recognize how sinful you are will Jesus be able to save you! Do you realize how depraved you are!? You would hit people…you say “no I wouldn’t” ok, fine. If someone got angry enough with you, are you more likely to get angry back or to hand them a gift card to Tim Hortons? That shows your sin nature. Where is your “Father forgive them, they don’t know what they’re doing” attitude that Jesus had while being executed? You’re not being executed, you have a retaliating spirit. Perhaps you should buy some gift cards and have them ready to go!

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But realize this, true disciple of Jesus, this world is not our home. In the end, the only rights that will matter are the rights that Jesus has given to us.

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John 1:12 Whoever receives Him, to them He gives the right to become children of God, … to those who believe in His name,

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That is the only right that I need to cling to. What Jesus expects of people in these verses demands a supernatural work. He demands no trace of retaliation, no angry words when you’ve been done wrong. “Don’t retaliate, do good to those who would do you harm, go beyond the call of duty, and don’t expect anything in return.”

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And if you are a child of the King, your citizenship is in heaven. Your property in this world is fleeting and your money be given to somebody else anyway. The true riches come from fearing the Lord walking with Him humility.

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Jesus gave us His example. Mocked and rejected beaten and scorned, stripped and crucified and he did not fight back although he could have sent over 72,000 angels, 12 legions of angels, to deliver him from the injustice.

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Friend, you’ll never experience that degree injustice: from throne of glory and rightful owner over his own torturers to submitting to unrighteous beating and an unjust death penalty. When you trust in the Lord and resign yourself to his will, you won’t demand your rights either but you’ll demand growth to be able do good to those who would do you harm.

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Go to Matthew Main Page

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  1. https://www.evangelical-times.org/26417/dont-hit-back/; The Converted Collier: Or the Life of Richard Weaver by Richard Cope Morgan

  2. http://www.jpost.com/Opinion/Repudiating-Gandhian-pacifism-in-the-face-of-mass-murder-449885

  3. Mishnah Bava Kamma 8:6 https://www.sefaria.org/Mishnah_Bava_Kamma.8.6?lang=bi

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