What Christians Get Wrong about 'Turn the Other Cheek'
Most of us have heard the phrase “turn the other cheek” at some point in our lives. Often, we are advised of this after a mishap with someone. Personally, I would always think about what that phrase meant and why it was so important to obey it.
There are two places in Scripture where Jesus tells us to turn the other cheek. The first occurrence is in the book of Matthew. Here we read these words. “But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” The second occurrence of this verse is found in Luke 6:29. It states, “If someone strikes you on one cheek, turn to him the other also.” So what do these verses mean, both for Jesus’ biblical audience, and for us today?
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What Does "Turn the Other Cheek" Mean?
At first glance, we might think this verse teaches that no matter what someone does to us, we are to look the other way. We are not to take any actions against our aggressors. This could not be farther from the truth. This verse is not saying that we are to let people do whatever they want to us. Rather, it is saying that God will handle it.
Looking deeper into Scripture, we find many examples of what Christians are to do when someone wrongs them. In John 18, Jesus is struck in the face by an official of the high priest. His response was to question why he was struck in the face. He asked the official to tell him what he said that was an untruth. John 19:3 states that Jesus was struck in the face again when he was sentenced to be crucified.
Looking back into the Old Testament, we see David sparing Saul’s life again and again. 1 Samuel 26:9-11 tells us that David left the punishment of Saul to the Lord.
As Christians, we are going to face persecution. We may even get a slap in the face. What this verse tells us is that we are not to get revenge. We are not appointed to punish the people who wrong us. We are to love them and let God do with them what He will. God has the sole power to punish people who sin, not us.
Who Is Saying This?
The life of Jesus up to this point in Scripture has been rather eventful. He had been tested by the devil himself, learned that John the Baptist had been imprisoned, and made his new home in Capernaum. Jesus began to preach throughout Galilee and called his twelve disciples.
When Jesus told the people they should turn the other cheek, he was preaching at the famous Sermon on the Mount. This portion of Scripture is what Christians today label the Beatitudes. This is referring to the declarations of blessedness. It is a call to moral living for all that hear him. People from all over Syria, Judea, Galilee, the Decapolis, and areas beyond the Jordan River came to hear Jesus speak.
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What Do Christians Get Wrong about This Verse?
Christians often are looked upon as wimps because they use this verse as the justification for their actions. Most give Jesus’ words a literal translation and interpretation. That is where we miss the point Jesus was trying to make. There are a few thoughts that we need to consider to better understand what Jesus is telling us.
1. What We Think:
Christians should not retaliate in any way when someone wrongs them.
We are not to practice complete non-resistance. Jesus is not telling us to let people do whatever they please to us. He is not saying couples should stay together in a violent relationship. He is not saying we are to stand by and do nothing when ourselves or others are being hurt.
2. What We Think:
Christians should not react in any way when they or another person is hurting.
We are called to respond when we ourselves or others are hurting. That response should not be to retaliate or “get back” at someone. But neither should our reaction be to stand back and watch the show. We are to be a part of the cast list. Christians are called to share the Gospel to the ends of the earth. This cannot be done when we stand back and do nothing.
This verse is not addressing what Christians should do when we are wronged. It is addressing the act of revenge that our sinful nature will want. Christians are to stand up for what we believe in. We are to continue to share God’s Word and question those that try to twist it. We are not to plan an act of revenge. Revenge is set aside for God. Proverbs 20:22 says “Do not say, I’ll pay you back for this wrong! Wait for the Lord, and he will deliver you.”
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Is There Ever a Time to Retaliate?
The answer to this question is a resounding YES! There will be times when we must retaliate for wrongdoing, but Christian retaliation will look different than worldly retaliation. To retaliate against someone is to fight back or repay someone in a likewise manner. This is not what Jesus had in mind.
Jesus has called us to retaliate with a response. In Genesis 37 we began to read the account of Joseph who was sold into slavery by his own brothers. They were jealous of him and wanted him gone. Joseph spent many years in Egypt where he was enslaved and imprisoned, but also experienced God’s favor. When a famine hit the land, Joseph was reunited with his brothers. He could have had them imprisoned or killed, but his response was neither. Genesis 50:21 says “So then, don’t be afraid. I will provide for you and your children. And he reassured them and spoke kindly to them.”
In 1 and 2 Samuel, we read the account of David as he experiences the wrath of Saul. David’s life was in danger and he could have killed Saul, but he chose not to. The experiences of Joseph and David tell us that there is a time to fight and there is a time to turn the other cheek. Joseph’s retaliation took the form of forgiveness while David’s retaliation was becoming king of Israel.
We are to stand up for ourselves. We should stand up for others that are hurting. Retaliation is needed at times, but our retaliation should not take the form of revenge. Christians can question those who wrong them. We should practice self-protection without a desire for personal revenge.
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How Should Christians Respond When We Are Wronged?
You will inevitably be wronged at some point in your Christian walk. Someone may physically hurt you, lie to you, steal from you, or insult your God. When this happens, you will want retribution. It is a part of our sinful nature. Our thoughts automatically go to paying them back for what they have done to us. God’s word tells us something different.
Romans 12:19 says “Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath. For it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge: I will repay, says the Lord.’” This is clear instruction that we are not to take revenge into our own hands. We may not like what has been done to us, but we do not have the power to settle the score. God further instructs us in Romans 12:20 when he says “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”
As Christians, we must be careful that when we confront evil, we do not harbor a desire for personal vengeance. In Acts 23:1-3, Paul gives us a perfect example of how we should act when we are wronged. Paul is before the Sanhedrin exclaiming his duty to God when the high priest Ananias strikes him on the mouth. Paul’s response was to inform Ananias that God would strike him. He then goes on to call out the fact that the Sanhedrin is judging him according to the law that they are also violating when they slap Paul.
When we are wronged, we are to use the word of God to retaliate. In a gracious rebuke, we are to confront evil. Jesus did not say we were to stand aside and do nothing. He said that we were to confront the evils of the world by sharing the Gospel and praying for our enemies. We are to put on the armor of God and fight evil, not for personal gain but for the glory of God.
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Revenge Is God's
Matthew 5:39 says that we are to turn the other cheek. This is extremely difficult for most of us because we want revenge. We want others to pay for what they have done to us. Even as a Christian we desire vengeance at times.
God has explicitly told us that vengeance is His. We are to correct and rebuke evil with His word. We are to love our enemies and pray for them daily. We are to stand up to evil and confront in love those that wrong not only us, but all of God’s people.
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