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The Sermon On The Mount


Chapter Seventeen

The Law and Retaliation-Continued


"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" (v. 39). In order to properly understand and rightly apply this injunction due regard must be paid to its context, and the whole interpreted in harmony with the general Analogy of Faith, otherwise we are in imminent danger of making Scripture to contradict itself. As we sought to show in our last, Christ was not here repealing an important Mosaic statute and substituting in its place a milder and more merciful rule for His followers to observe, but was (as in the preceding sections of His Sermon) refuting an error of the scribes and reprehending the evil practice of the Pharisees. They had given a promiscuous application to a judicial regulation for the use of magistrates, a regulation which placed strict bounds upon the punishment to be meted out unto those guilty of deeds of maiming.

The statute pertaining to magistrates only had been given a general application, so that the people were allowed to take the law into their own hands, each individual being free to avenge his wrongs privately, which not only condoned but encouraged the spirit of malice and revenge. It was in view of this wicked perversion of the Divine Law that our Saviour said "Resist not evil." More literally it is "Resist not the evil one," that is, the evil individual who has injured you. Resist not: think not of taking the law into your own hands, requiting the adversary as he has done to you. Cherish not against him the spirit of revenge, but be actuated by nobler principles and more spiritual considerations. Such is plainly the general purport of this precept: its particular implications must now be considered.

Even Mr. F. W. Grant (a leader among the "Plymouth Brethren") agreed that, "The righteousness of the law of course remains righteousness, but it does not require of any that they exact for personal wrongs. There is no supposition of the abrogation of law or of its penalties. The government of the world is not in question, but the path of disciples in it. Where they are bound by the law, they are bound, and have no privileges. They are bound, too, to sustain it in its general working, as ordained of God for good. Within these limits there is still abundant room for such practice as is here enjoined. We may still turn the left cheek to him that smites the right, or let the man that sues us have the cloak as well as the coat which he has fraudulently gained: for that is clearly within our rights. If the cause were that of another, we should have no right of this kind, nor to aid men generally in escape from justice or in slighting it. The Lord could never lay down a general rule that His people should allow lawlessness, or identify themselves with indifference to the rights of others" (The Numerical Bible).

"Resist not evil." That which Christ here forbade was not the resisting of evil by a lawful defence, but by way of private revenge. Public reparation is when the magistrate, according to the justice and mercy of the Divine Law, sentences an evil person who has injured his fellow. Private revenge is when those who are not magistrates take matters into their own hands and retaliate against those who have wronged them. The former is clearly permitted, for an apostle declared the magistrate is "the minister of God" for executing judgment upon evil-doers, the same apostle as expressly forbids retaliation: "Recompense no man evil for evil" (Rom. 12:17).

"But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil." There are many who err in supposing that such a precept as this is peculiar to the New Testament. A comparison of the two Testaments will show that identically the same rule of duty obtained in both economies. "if thine enemy be hungry, give him bread to eat; and if he be thirsty, give him water to drink: For thou shalt heap coals of fire upon his head" (Prov. 25:21, 22); Therefore if thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink: for in so doing thou shalt heap coals of fire on his head" (Rom. 12:20). Rightly did one of the older writers say, when commenting upon this passage in Proverbs 25, "The law of love is not expounded more spiritually in any single precept either by Christ or His apostles than in this exhortation." Its obvious meaning is, seize the moment of distress to show kindness to him that hateth thee.

Living in a sinful world, we must expect to meet with injustices and unprovoked injuries. How, then, are we to conduct ourselves under them? The answer is, first, God forbids us, both in the Law and in the Gospel, to recompense evil for evil. The taking of private revenge, either inwardly or outwardly, is expressly prohibited. "Say not thou [no, not even in thine heart] I will recompense evil" (Prov. 20:22). I must not so much as allow the thought that some day I shall have an opportunity to get my own back: I am not even to hope it, still less resolve the same. The Christian should not desire or determine anything which he cannot in faith ask God to assist him in; and most assuredly he would have no ground whatever to expect the Lord to help him in the execution of a malicious revenge.

We may not requite evil for evil in thought, word, or deed to those who mistreat us, but rather suffer injury and refer our cause to Him who is the Judge of all the earth. Because this duty goes against our natural inclinations, let us mention one or two persuasives thereto. First, it is the expressly revealed will of God for us, and His commands are not grievous. Second, vengeance belongeth unto the Lord, and if we take it upon ourselves to avenge our wrongs privately, then we rob Him of His right. Third, Christ has left us an example that we should follow His steps, and "When He was reviled, reviled not again; when He suffered, He threatened not; but committed Himself to Him that judgeth righteously" (1 Pet. 2:23); yea, when He was cruelly and unjustly crucified, He prayed for His persecutors. Finally, Christ has plainly warned us that if we forgive not men their trespasses, neither will God forgive ours (Matthew 6:15).

But now we must face the question of how far this precept "Resist not evil" is binding upon us. Is it to be regarded absolutely? Does it recognize no limitation and make no allowance for exceptions? Is the Christian passively to endure all wrong? Here is where we must seek guidance from the Analogy of Faith, or in other words, ascertain the teaching of collateral passages. If this be done, it will be found that while our text enunciates a principle of general application, it is not a universal one. To deduce from it the doctrine of unlimited non-resistance to evil is to pervert its teaching, and to exalt the letter above the spirit; just as to insist that the plucking out of a right eye which offends or the cutting off of an offending right hand (vv. 29, 30) must be understood and obeyed literally, would be to miss entirely our Lord's meaning in those verses.

First, the teaching of Christ elsewhere manifestly forbids us to understand "Resist not evil" in an unqualified and universal sense. He gave explicit directions to His disciples concerning their duty toward those who wronged them: "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 a heathen man and a publican" (Matthew 18:15-17). Now that is very definite resistance to evil: it challenges the wrong done, examines the offence, and punishes the wrong-doer. There are more ways of resistance to evil than the employment of physical force.

Second, the idea of an unqualified non-resistance to evil is contrary to the example of Christ. He resisted evil, attacked wrong-doers, and when smitten did not turn the other cheek. When He went up to Jerusalem and found His Father's house turned into a house of merchandise and a den of thieves, He made a scourge of small cords and cast out of the temple both sheep and oxen. He scattered the money of the desecrators and overthrew their tables (John 2:13-17). On another occasion He drove them out, stopped the service, and refused to let any man carry a vessel through the temple (Mark 11:15-17). That was not passive resistance, but vigorous aggression. In the judgment-hall of Caiaphas one of the officers struck the Saviour with his hand, but instead of turning the other cheek Christ challenged the smiter (John 18:22, 23). He did not answer force with force and return blow for blow, but He exposed and rebuked the wrong.

Third, were we to offer no resistance whatever unto injuries inflicted upon us, no matter what their nature, or who their perpetrators, then we should fail in supporting and co-operating with the Divine ordinance of the magistrate, and be guilty of abetting evildoers. The magistrate is God's lieutenant, His minister for vindicating the oppressed and punishing criminals. Under certain circumstances it would be our bounden duty to seek the protection and help of the officers of the law, for they are one of God's means for preserving order in the community. If it be right for me to bring an offending brother before the church-the well-being of the church requiring that it should be purged if he be rebellious; then by what principle can it be wrong for me to summon a law-breaker before the magistrate, in cases where the good of the community obviously requires it?

"This command of our Lord, illustrated by the examples He brings forward, plainly does not forbid us to defend ourselves when we are in danger. To do so is one of the strongest instincts of our nature, the law of God written on our hearts. But with regard to personal injuries, when there is no hazard of life, as in the case specified, it is our duty to repress resentment and to abstain from violence. In like manner, there are cases in which it is plainly a man's duty to avail himself of the protection which the law gives to property. Justice to his creditors, to the public, to his family, may require him to defend his estate, though even this must not be done under the impulse of private revenge. But we ought to have resort to the tribunals of justice only when the cause is important and the call urgent; we are to prosecute our claims with humanity, moderation, and a spirit of peace; we are to be content with reasonable satisfaction" (John Brown).

When the injury received is a personal and private one it is the Christian's duty to bear it in the spirit of meekness, so long as by so doing he is not encouraging evil-doers and thereby rendering them a menace to others. If I am walking on the pavement and a drunken motorist mounts the curb, knocks me down, and then drives off, it is plainly my duty to take the number of his car, report the offence to the police, and if required bear witness in the court. So too when a wrong is done to others for whom we are responsible, resistance becomes a duty. If a man's child is in peril at the hands of some human fiend, is he to stand by and see it outraged or murdered? Did not Abraham, the friend of God and the "father of all them that believe," arm his servants, smite those who had taken his nephew prisoner, and free him (Gen. 14:14-16)?

As we have so often pointed out in these pages, every truth of Scripture has a balancing one, and it is only by heeding the same that we are preserved from going to an unwarrantable extreme. Examples of those guilty of lopsidedness, not only in doctrine but in practice, are numerous. As there are those who put to false use Christ's "Swear not at all" (v. 34), so there are not lacking others who place an unjustifiable interpretation upon His "resist not evil." They suppose that in this dispensation of grace it is the will of God that His children should allow the principle of grace to regulate all their actions. But certainly it is not God's will that the principle of grace should override and swallow up all other principles of action. The requirements of justice and the demands of holiness are also to be honored by the Christian. Here too grace is to reign "through righteousness" (Rom. 5:21) and not at the expense of it.

The same rule applies to other matters. Abstention from going to law is a sound rule of life. It is a man's wisdom, generally speaking, to keep free of litigation. The apostle condemned the Corinthians because they took their contentions before the civil courts. But is a man, is a Christian, never to resort unto law? What right have we to enjoy the social and civil privileges of a community if we ignore its obligations? Even though we may forgive an offence against our property, have we no responsibility to our neighbors? If I corner a burglar in my house am I at liberty to turn loose upon society one who will plunder its property and imperil its security? There are times when it is the clear duty of a Christian to hand a law-breaker over to the law.

But exceptions do not nullify a rule, rather do they prove it. Care must be taken, then, lest in turning from the letter we lose the spirit of those precepts. "Resist not evil" is a plain command of Christ's and as such it is binding upon us. His follower is to be a man of peace, meekness, enduring wrong, suffering loss, accepting hardship, full of compassion and simple faith. A contentious spirit is evil: to be ever wrangling and always on the defensive is not Christian. Going to law as a rule is neither seemly nor wise. But all of that pertains to the negative side: as we shall yet see, there is a positive one too. Good must be returned for evil, for only by good can evil be overcome. Our business is not the punishment of sinners, but the desiring and seeking after their salvation. Such was the life of our Lord, and such also must be ours.

The very fact that the Lord Jesus here designated the evil-doer "the evil one" makes it clear to us that it is the characteristic of an evil man to inflict injury upon others. The giving of this title to the wrong-doer gives us to understand that if we retaliate in the same wicked spirit then we necessarily place ourselves in the same class to which he belongs. We are therefore to suffer wrong patiently. There are but two classes in the world, the good and the evil, and it is the mark of the former that they do good unto all. They who do evil evidence their likeness to the evil one; whereas the prosecution of that which is good is Godlike. If we set ourselves to do harm unto others, either by word or deed, we are in the sight of God evil men: such are usurers and extortioners, profiteers, fraudulent traders, those engaged in any enterprise which subverts morality, underminers of health, Sabbath breakers. The Christian, then, must separate himself from all such callings, and (though it entails a smaller salary) engage in that which is pleasing to God.

Although by nature fallen men be likened unto untamed beasts and fierce animals, resembling the "wild ass's colt" (Job 11:12), the lion, the leopard, the wolf, the cockatrice (Isa. 11:6-8), whose nature it is to hurt and devour other creatures, yet when God in His infinite mercy is pleased to work in them a miracle of grace, bestow upon them spiritual life and reconcile them to Himself, then they lay aside their enmity and ferocity and live in peace with one another, so that the ancient saying is fulfilled: "They shall not hurt nor destroy in all My holy mountain" (Isa. 11:9). It is a property of Christ's kingdom that His subjects shall "beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruninghooks" (Micah 4:3)- weapons of bloodshed being transmuted into instruments of usefulness. When men are truly converted, they lay aside malice and wrath and become the doers and promoters of good. This was notably exemplified in the case of Paul, who, from a fierce persecutor, was transformed into a preacher of the Gospel of peace.


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