turn the other cheek
In Yeshua's (Jesus') Sermon on the Mount He gave His followers what might seem like a most impracticable if not unreasonable instruction, which for eons many readers have struggled with.
- MATTHEW 5:38-39 Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: but I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.
We are assured that Yeshua Himself was not unreasonable, so as we dig into this passage a little deeper we shall better understand His intentions. Of course the Bible is a book of the Orient, written by Orientals mostly to Orientals. As these ancient people often spoke figuratively instead of literally, we must be vigilant to consider and interpret the scriptures in that light; not always literally from a Western perspective but more often figuratively from the Eastern perspective.
For example, when John the Baptist stated that the Pharisees and Sadducees were a generation of vipers (MATTHEW 3:7) not many would think that he was speaking literally. Or when Yeshua told his disciples that if they had the faith of a mustard seed that they could then remove mountains (MATTHEW 17:20), who thinks that He was speaking literally of a mustard seed having faith. Or when He talked about them swallowing a camel (MATTHEW 23:24) does anyone believe that He was speaking literally?
So when we come to this Sermon on the Mount and He instructed some His followers to pluck out their right eye (5:29) or to cut off their right arm (5:30) do any of us suppose that He was speaking literally? Of course not. He was speaking figuratively, expressing His thoughts in a more lasting and vivid light. Even so, speaking figuratively does not lesson the command but rather intensifies and strengthens it. It burns the lesson into the hearer's mind so that it is not so easily forgotten.
As such, in the passage we are considering Yeshua may not have been telling His followers that they should literally turn their face so as to then be slapped again, but rather He could very well of been speaking figuratively. Howbeit, that doesn't diminish His charge but rather heightens its importance. He was warning them about their desire for revenge, an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth (5:38), which was no longer going to be an effective way to deal with their disputes.
This Sermon on the Mount doesn't make much sense unless viewed in the light of the resurrection. It had to do with the kingdom of heaven (to which Yeshua made reference more than twenty times) and what it would require for His listeners, His followers and disciples to find entrance therein (7:21). If they were to be the children of their Father in heaven, then they were going to have to learn to love their enemies, they were going to need to start praying for those who persecuted them (5:44-45). Yeshua's gospel was not about getting even or settling the score, but rather it was about changing themselves from within (see the Study, Nurturing and Harvesting the Fruit of the Spirit).
An important clue to understanding what He specifically intended here by telling them to turn the other cheek was that Yeshua mentioned that it was the right cheek which was slapped. In the Oriental culture the left hand was the hand which was generally left unused, except for foul chores like cleaning oneself after using the toilet. This is exactly why it was called the left hand, it was the hand which was left. The right hand was the hand which was the preferred hand and it was used for all of the right things, the righteous things. It was thus called the right hand (On the Study of Words, by Richard Trent, page 185).
Normally, one wouldn't use his left hand to strike another person. In a contest or battle, the left hand was used to hold the defensive shield but the offensive weapon was held in the right hand (see Thayer's Greek-English Lexicon). As such, if the right cheek was to be struck, then it would probably have been a back-handed slap, which would have been for the sole purpose of insulting one's opponent and not simply a violent attack so as to subdue him.
Thus, if it is my desire to insult someone by a back-handed slap to their right cheek, and then they respond by turning their other cheek to me, what am I then to do? I can't very well back-hand the left cheek, at least not with my right hand. My only option is to elevate the confrontation by punching them in the face with a closed fist. That or else just letting the confrontation subside, which is no doubt what Yeshua was directing them to do.
Yeshua in this Sermon was encouraging them to develop and maintain a relationship with their Heavenly Father. He was instructing them to let GOD be their sufficiency and to quit trying to solve all of their problems and challenges on their own. He had also been pointing them to their coming reward in heaven, that everything shall be made right there.
- MATTHEW 5:10-12 Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake. Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you.
Thus, instead of always being offended and trying to return the insult to their adversary, they should instead rejoice and be glad, looking past the present attack and seeing the reward which was awaiting in their future. To be able to do this GOD was going to have to become a living reality in their lives. Their prayers and their fastings were no longer going to be done for the approval of their fellow men, but now they were to be done in secret, something only their Heavenly Father would know about (MATTHEW 6:6, 18).
Many fail to understand these passages because they don't look at them from a heavenly perspective. They don't consider the eternal consequences of their actions and those of others. They too often think only of this present life and find no sensible reason to allow themselves to be persecuted or evil spoken of. Rarely does the student understand that the reason and purpose for their very existence is their spiritual growth and development.
Yeshua instructed His disciples to learn to quit trying to right every wrong and instead grow to believe that GOD had their back. GOD is well able to manage HIS creation and He can direct every event for our good (ROMANS 8:28). They didn't need to go it alone, so to speak. Thus, we read later in the sermon how Yeshua explained to them that developing this relationship with GOD was the key to solving all their problems.
- MATTHEW 7:7-11 Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you: for every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened.
- Or what man is there of you, whom if his son ask bread, will he give him a stone? Or if he ask a fish, will he give him a serpent? If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your Father which is in heaven give good things to them that ask him?
This was His message. First believe in GOD, and then believe that HE is a rewarder of those who diligently seek HIM (HEBREWS 11:6). And who knew this better than Yeshua, for despite the joy that was promised Him, as GOD's only begotten Son, He willingly endured the pain and the shame of the crucifixion (HEBREWS 12:2).
If GOD indeed oversaw all which happened unto His disciples, if in fact the hairs on their heads were truly numbered (MATTHEW 10:30), then they could have confidence that GOD was also with them when confronted by an attacker. As Peter later wrote, "The Lord knoweth how to deliver the godly out of temptations" (2 PETER 2:9). Only in this way could they gladly and willingly turn the other cheek when insulted.
Thus, the old ways of retribution had to cease. Now, if they were going to be His followers and disciples, then they must learn to control their passions and emotions and develop that spiritual relationship with their Heavenly Father. They must learn that HE has their hand and can and will sustain them, or at least HE will pick up the pieces in the resurrection, in the kingdom of heaven.
- MATTHEW 10:25-26 It is enough for the disciple that he be as his master, and the servant as his lord. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebub, how much more shall they call them of his household? Fear them not therefore . . . .
This was the faith of Yeshua; He absolutely believed that GOD was His sufficiency. He had total confidence that if He allowed evil men to abuse and even kill Him, that GOD would raise Him from that cold dark tomb. This was the faith He was endeavoring to impart to His disciples.
Thus, the heart and purpose of Yeshua's instruction in His sermon was that His followers should always look to GOD and the resurrection. We should not just be reacting to situations which this life throws our way, but we should be disciplined, masters of every emotion. Remembering that everything that happens in life is for the sole purpose of teaching us something, we can be assured that we can face any challenge and even learn from it.
By instructing them to turn the other cheek, Yeshua was lifting them up onto a higher plain, encouraging them to live in a more righteous and holy manner. He was teaching them that instead of always reacting to the actions of others, that they should bridal their emotions and align their conduct according to His directives. Thus, in so doing they should become the savory salt of the earth and the guiding and illuminating light on the hill (MATTHEW 5:13-16). Only in this way would they be building their eternal house upon a solid rock and not on a bed of shifting sand (MATTHEW 7:24-27).
As such, Yeshua's additional instruction in the passage to "resist not evil" has to also be understood in this light. Yeshua wasn't telling them to just become pansies or pacifists and to stand by while people run them through. Rather He was thinking and speaking of the best use of their time and energies in order to develop within themselves what was going to be necessary for their entrance into the kingdom of heaven. He was warning them to not be distracted by frivolous and trivial insults and lawsuits but rather to keep their eye on the goal of becoming fit for the kingdom of heaven.
We know that elsewhere in scripture the believer was told that he should indeed resist the devil (1 PETER 5:8-9 JAMES 4:7) and also to resist the evil day (EPHESIANS 6:12). Thus we should understand that when Yeshua told them in His sermon to not resist evil He was rather instructing them that they should do their best to not be diverted from their goal and purpose. Don't let life's circumstances lure them away from their true calling. In other words, don't waste the precious little time which they had in trying to fight against and remedy all of the evils in this present world.
To gain further insight into this passage, we quote from Understanding the Difficult Words of Jesus by David Bivin and Roy Blizzard, Jr., page 108.
- When we translate the verse back into Hebrew, we see that Jesus was not creating a new saying, but quoting a well-known Old Testament proverb. This proverb appears, with slight variations, in Psalm 37:1, 8, and Proverbs 24:19. In modern English we would translate this maxim: "Don't compete with evildoers." In other words, do not try to rival or vie with a neighbor who had wronged you.
- Jesus is not teaching that one should lie down in the face of evil or submit to evil; rather, he is teaching that we should forego trying to "get back at," or take revenge on a quarrelsome neighbor. As Proverbs 24:29 says: "Do not say, 'I will do to him as he has done to me. I will pay the man back for what he has done.' "
Yeshua Himself, with a whip which He had made, drove out the merchants from the Temple (JOHN 2:15). To do that He had to display quite a lot of force for these thieves would not have departed from their money easily. Thus, it is obvious that when the situation required it, Yeshua was no sissy who routinely let others abuse Him, but rather He was of a warrior spirit who was always in command of every situation.
Yeshua in His sermon meant that in the course of life they should not get distracted by trying to get even with their abusers. But then on the other hand, as His apostles Peter and James rightly wrote, that in their minds they were to resist the temptings of evil. Resist evil temptings but don't get sidetracked by fighting against the attacks of unjust and evil men.
Next in this sermon, Yeshua stated that "if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloke also" (MATTHEW 5:40). Tying all these statements together, about revenge and insult and legal action, we can deduce that Yeshua was simply denouncing their endless circle of vindictiveness. You insulted me so I'll sue you; and then you sued me so I'll slap you.
There is an interesting footnote concerning these passages by George Foot Moore in his book Judaism in the First Centuries of the Christian Era, page 151, which indicates that they were indeed allowed to sue one another simply because of an insult.
- The rabbinical law allows the injured party in such a case exemplary damages. . . . it is expressly said that in a trifling assault the damages are not for the pain the blow gave, but for the insult of it.
Howbeit, Yeshua was instructing His disciples to not let others dissuade them from their true calling by threatening to take away their livelihood or possessions. This was indeed going to become a painful reality for many of them as they proclaimed the gospel, but even if they were to face a loss of some kind they should not despair, for sometimes a plant needs to be pruned back a little to remain healthy (JOHN 15:2). Thus, if a certain loss is the result of our Creator endeavoring to teach and instruct us about what is really important in life, then perhaps we shouldn't become frantic in thinking that it is the end of the world. Sometimes it's best to just let the circumstances of life develop and see where it all leads.
- MATTHEW 6:28-30 And why take ye thought for raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin: and yet I say unto you, That even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.
- Wherefore, if God so clothe the grass of the field, which to day is, and to morrow is cast into the oven, shall he not much more clothe you, O ye of little faith?
Rather than hiring expensive lawyers to recover something we've lost, or to get us recompensed for some damage we imagine ourselves to have suffered, maybe we should just let it go. In his letter to the Corinthians Paul wrote about this very thing.
- 1 CORINTHIANS 6:7-8 (The Jerusalem Bible) It is bad enough for you to have lawsuits at all against one another: oughtn't you to let yourselves be wronged and let yourselves be cheated? But you are doing the wronging and the cheating, and to your own brothers.
Maybe it's better to concentrate on developing a true and vital relationship with our Heavenly Father and start thinking more about the resurrection, the narrow gate through which only a few might enter (MATTHEW 7:13-14), and quit trying to build bigger and better barns in which to store our earthly treasures.
Again, Yeshua was instructing His followers not to allow someone to distract or sidetrack them from their calling. This is precisely the same instruction which the apostle Paul later warned Timothy, writing "No man that warreth entangleth himself with the affairs of this life; that he may please him who hath chosen him to be a soldier" (2 TIMOTHY 2:4). It was critical that the disciples didn't get involved in frivolous quarrels, because the time was short and the disciples should devote themselves wholly to the cause set before them (EPHESIANS 5:16 ROMANS 13:11).
Luke records for us that on a later occasion Yeshua delivered another sermon similar but not identical to the Sermon on the Mount (see The Chronology of the Four Gospels). In both sermons Yeshua taught along similar lines but each with important differences. We should note that in Luke's account nothing is said about which cheek was slapped.
- LUKE 6:27-29 But I say unto you which hear, Love your enemies, do good to them which hate you, bless them that curse you, and pray for them which despitefully use you. And unto him that smiteth thee on the one cheek offer also the other; and him that taketh away thy cloke forbid not to take thy coat also.
These enemies of which Yeshua spoke were not invading armies from a foreign land, nor were they highway robbers. These which hated and cursed and despised them were no doubt their fellow-countrymen and co-religionists who would be attempting to snuff out this new religion. They would be abusing them in the same fashion as the pharisee Saul was going to (ACTS 9:1-2; 22:4), before his own conversion. And is this not the exact same treatment Yeshua received by His captors when the soldiers smote Him (MATTHEW 27:30), and mocked Him (LUKE 23:36), and the rulers derided Him (LUKE 23:35).
In His sermon Yeshua was warning them of what lie ahead for some of them if they decided to take up this torch, this cross, and follow Him (MATTHEW 16:24). His apostles and disciples were going to be the objects of abuse and ridicule, but He was instructing them that they were not to allow themselves to be dissuaded from their purpose by their maltreatment.
- LUKE 6:22-23 Blessed are ye, when men shall hate you, and when they shall separate you from their company, and shall reproach you, and cast out your name as evil [Hebrew idiom meaning to malign or slander], for the Son of man’s sake. Rejoice ye in that day, and leap for joy: for, behold, your reward is great in heaven: for in the like manner did their fathers unto the prophets.
Being separated from the company of others no doubt meant excommunication or exclusion from the congregation by the ruling elders (Emil Schurer's History of the Jewish People, Book 4, page 60). Thus, while in Matthew's account Yeshua was dealing with their desire for revenge (5:40), in Luke's account He was speaking more of a violent assault, no doubt by the religious authorities. This is further apparent by the different words used by the two evangelists. The Greek word for smite in MATTHEW is rhapizo but in LUKE it is typto which suggested an attack using the fist (see Thayer's Greek-English Lexicon).
Nevertheless, Yeshua was warning His disciples that they could expect resistance and active harassment from their co-religioninst. Perhaps some of them would be persecuted unto torture and even death, but they should not despair, for any price they paid was a small cost for being counted as His disciples, and then being crowned in the eternal kingdom of His Heavenly Father. As He later reminded them, "So likewise, whosoever he be of you that forsaketh not all that he hath, he cannot be my disciple" (LUKE 14:33).
Along a similar line, the reader might wonder if we are not suppose to forever forgive those who would do us harm. We are reminded of when Peter asked the Lord how many times he must forgive his brother and Yeshua replied that the offender should be forgiven seven times seventy (MATTHEW 18:21-22). But again, He was no doubt speaking figuratively, not wanting to give Peter a limit which he would then shoot for. To quote Abraham Mitrie Rihbany from The Syrian Christ, page 138.
- In harmony with his legalistic preconception, Peter chose the full and sacred number "seven" as a very liberal measure for forgiveness. Apparently Jesus' purpose was to make forgiveness a matter of disposition, sympathy, and discretion, rather than of arithmetic. To this end he made use of the Oriental saying which meant indefiniteness, rather than a fixed rule.
Of course, the forgiveness must be proceeded by the offender's repentance. We are never commanded in scripture to offer a blanket forgiveness to all, regardless of whether or not they regret or are remorseful for their actions. Elsewhere in scripture we are told that forgiveness is limited to those who are willing to make amends.
- MATTHEW 18:15-17 Moreover if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother.
- But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.
- And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican. (see also 1 CORINTHIANS 5:11 2 CORINTHIANS 13:2 2 THESSALONIANS 3:14-15 TITUS 3:10).
The student may also recall that when He hung upon the cross, Yeshua had asked His Father to forgive them, "for they know not what they do" (LUKE 23:34). It is often supposed that He was asking forgiveness for the religious leaders who were responsible for His capture, and torture and crucifixion, but that is probably not the case. Yeshua had previously pronounced upon those hypocritical and blind guides eight woes (MATTHEW 23:13-33), declaring that they would not be entering the kingdom of heaven, and that they shall receive "greater damnation", and that they were indeed children of hell, summing up His assault upon them by questioning, "Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of hell?"
Why would we then expect that a few days later He would turn around and ask for their forgiveness, excusing their actions by declaring that they didn't know what they were doing? It is when we read the previous verse that we learn that when He asked for their forgiveness, He was most likely referring to the Roman soldiers, the guards and officers who were scurrying about beneath Him. These individuals were simply carrying out their orders, and no doubt knew little or nothing of this supposed criminal.
- LUKE 23:33-34 And when they were come to the place, which is called Calvary, there they crucified him, and the malefactors, one on the right hand, and the other on the left. Then said Jesus, Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do. And they parted his raiment, and cast lots.
These soldiers probably hadn't given much thought to who He was or why He was being crucified. But after His resurrection, after seeing the open tomb with the stone door flung off in the distance (JOHN 20:1), then they no doubt considered it greatly. So for their sake, Yeshua could ask His Father for their forgiveness, but for the evil and malicious rulers, there could be no forgiveness.
The religious leader's sin was against the holy spirit, which Yeshua had earlier declared there was no forgiveness for (MATTHEW 12:31-32). By this declaration He was saying that one might be excused for not believing His own teaching and preaching, but to deny the works which He was doing through the holy spirit, the signs, miracles and wonders, was evidence of one's total blindness and inability to see the forest for the trees. Being hard-hearted and completely closed off to GOD they were beyond the reach of salvation, which was evidenced by their refusal to see GOD at work in His ministry (see the Study, The Unforgivable Sin).
But on the other hand, if a fellow believer should wrong us, and ask to be forgiven for his trespass (LUKE 17:3 ACTS 8:22), then Yeshua commanded that we should be willing to let bygones be bygones. We should not hold a grudge, lest we endanger our own forgiveness (MATTHEW 18:35 MARK 11:26).
But beyond that, if we refuse or are slow to forgive a fellow believer for a trespass he has repented of, then there is the possibility that we could cause him undue sorrow and perhaps irreparable harm. Paul made mention of this in his epistle to the Corinthians, where one who had sinned but then later repented, now needed the forgiviness of the community (2 CORINTHIANS 2:7). On other occasions in the Christian Scriptures (the New Testament) the believers are regularly admonished to forgive one another, even as they themselves also have been forgiven (EPHESIANS 4:32 COLOSSIANS 3:13).
The general principle we have been reviewing in this Study, is always to do unto others as we would have them to do unto us (MATTHEW 22:39), and to never render evil for evil (ROMANS 10:17). This is a common tenet found even in the Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament).
- PROVERBS 17:13-14 Whoso rewardeth evil for good, evil shall not depart from his house. The beginning of strife is as when one letteth out water: therefore leave off contention, before it be meddled with [rushes forth].
The phrase "letteth out the water" in this passage has an interesting Oriental meaning. We quote from The Bible Commentary by F. C. Cook, PROVERBS-EZEKIEL.
- The figure is taken from the great tank or reservoir upon which Eastern cities often depended for their supply of water. The beginning of strife is compared to the first crack in the mound of such a reservoir. At first a few drops ooze out, but after a time the whole mass of waters pour themselves forth with fury, and it is hard to set limits to the destruction which they cause.
Then from the Christian Scriptures, Peter wrote, "Not rendering evil for evil, or railing for railing: but contrariwise blessing; knowing that ye are thereunto called, that ye should inherit a blessing" (1 PETER 3:9). The believers' calling is to nurture and produce the fruit of the spirit and to see the new man, the new creation grow and develop within himself. As such there is an inheritance awaiting the faithful in the kingdom of GOD.
Likewise, the apostle Paul wrote the believers in Thessalonica, "See that none render evil for evil unto any man; but ever follow that which is good, both among yourselves, and to all men" (1 THESSALONIANS 5:15). We must learn to control our emotions. We must discipline ourselves so as to walk in alignment with the guidance from the word of GOD. We must follow in the steps of our Lord and become more and more like Him, becoming a new man, a new creation.
- EPHESIANS 4:21-24 If so be that ye have heard him, and have been taught by him, as the truth is in Jesus: that ye put off concerning the former conversation [lifestyle] the old man, which is corrupt according to the deceitful lusts; and be renewed in the spirit of your mind; and that ye put on the new man, which after God is created in righteousness and true holiness.