What Did Jesus Mean by Turn the Other Cheek?

Turn the other cheek.
Turn the other cheek. | Source

"You have heard it said, 'An eye for and eye, a tooth for a tooth,' But I say to you, do not resist an evil person! If someone slaps you on the right cheek, offer the other cheek also" (Matthew 5:39).

This passage bothers a lot of people, and sometimes the whole of the passage (Matt. 5:38-42) is misinterpreted. At first glance, it looks as if Jesus is saying, "Be a doormat. If someone is abusing you, let him keep doing it and don't defend yourself." Some people use this Scripture to say that we should always be passive and never defend ourselves or set boundaries, even in war.

To put it all in context, here is the entire passage:

"You have heard it said, 'An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.' But I tell you not to resist an evil person. But whoever slaps you on the right cheek, turn the other to him also. If anyone wants to sue you and take away your tunic, let him have your cloak also. And whoever compels you to go one mile, go with him two. Give to him who asks you, and from him who wants to borrow from you do not turn away" (Matt. 5:38-42).

The Pharisees conveniently interpreted the law to the letter and not the spirit.
The Pharisees conveniently interpreted the law to the letter and not the spirit. | Source

Jesus' audience and context

This passage comes from the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew five. Jesus' audience is important when reading the sermon. Jesus was speaking to His disciples (not just the 12, but a great many followers). They were the Jewish people (see Matt. 5:1). This sermon is for believers, explaining the character of a follower of Jesus, and what we are meant to do as Christ followers. The sermon starts with the Beatitudes (the blessed are's). Long about verse 21, Jesus enters into a series of statements on the law. He has six topics, or laws, that He speaks of (e.g. murder, adultery, divorce, oaths, retaliation, and how to treat our enemies).

In each of these portions He begins with the words, "You have heard that it was said," followed by the Pharisees' interpretation of a specific law from the Old Testament. A close and accurate study of these passages reveals that He is correcting the Pharisee's traditional interpretation of the law. Notice Jesus does not say, "It is written"; rather He says "You have heard that it was said." In other words "You have the heard the religious leaders say..." The Pharisees had a habit of reducing or even twisting the law in such a way that it would allow them to obey the law technically (the letter of the law), but in reality violate the spirit of the law as it was intended.

For example, Jesus begins with the Pharisee's interpretation of the commandment "You shall not murder." This is the "letter" of the law. Jesus goes on to explain the spirit of the law which was that when we hate someone or wish them ill will, it is murder in our hearts (see Matt. 5:22).

Eye for an eye

Eye for an eye
Eye for an eye | Source

Eye for an eye

The passage in verses 38-42 is now speaking of retaliation. The law said "Eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth." The Pharisee's interpreted this to mean God is giving us carte blanche to take the law into our own hands get to even with those who have hurt or offended us. In other words, if someone was to put another's eye out, that would give the person who was hurt to retaliate by doing the same, or worse. We have seen this in societies all over the world since time immemorial. This interpretation allowed the individual to decide in their own sinful minds what was just punishment.

The statement "Eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth," can be found in Ex. 21:23-25, Lev. 24:19-20, and Deut. 19:15-21. This law was meant to be a legal, civil law, to be carried out by and/or under the authority of civic authorities, not for private citizens to take the law into their own hands.

The Apostle Paul said "Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God. Therefore whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves" (Rom. 13:1-2).

Don't set yourself against an evil person

In the Matthew five passage at the beginning of this hub, Jesus goes on to say, "But I tell you not to resist an evil person." Vine's Expository Dictionary states that to "resist" means "to set against." So in effect, Jesus is telling us not to set ourselves as an enemy against one who wrongs us; don't be hateful and seek to get even.

Turning the other cheek

People really struggle with this verse, interpreting it to mean, once again, "Be a doormat." However, if you go back to the historical/social time of Jesus, you will find a clearer meaning of this statement.

In Jesus' time, a slap on the cheek with the back of the hand was one of the most demeaning and humiliating insults one could experience. What Jesus is saying here is if someone smites you on the cheek (or insults or abuses you), don't retaliate or seek vengeance. Turn the other cheek is not a command to allow someone to slap you around, but to refrain from retaliation out of hate and vengeance. If the law has been broken, take it to the authorities.

Let's say someone came up to you and spit on you with an epithet. Wouldn't your dignity be wounded? It would be human nature to take a swing at the person, or grab him by the collar and spit right back in his face. Jesus wants us to refrain from retaliation in circumstances like these. That takes humility (being humble, not humiliation) and dignity. It isn't easy, but Jesus did it often with people who sought to abuse him.

There are lots of scenarios you could come up with. Let's look at domestic violence. Again, this is a legal issue. Calling the authorities is the appropriate action. What Christ doesn't want is for the one who was abused to have a vendetta out for the one who hurt them and seek to bring them harm outside of the law, by let's say getting a group of male friends and family members to beat him to a pulp. Of course that would make you feel better, it would me, but that is not the way God has for us. He sets up laws and authorities to exact punishment.

Earlier in Matthew five, Jesus said, "Blessed are the meek." Meekness is usually thought of as being weak, easily bullied. Meekness in the Bible means power under control. In other words, showing restraint.

If you are sued

"If anyone wants to sue you in court, and your shirt is taken from you, give your coat, too" (Matt. 5:39).

Let's say it's been determined that you have wronged someone and they decide to sue you. The one who sues has won his case (whether or not you are guilty) and you must legally pay them back - be willing to pay, without bitterness or begrudgingly, even if the only thing you can pay with is something you own for one of your most basic needs (your shirt and your cloak). This is a Christlike act. This is proof you are willing to humble yourself and do and exceed what is right.

If you offend someone, Jesus asks us to be willing to make it right no matter what the cost to you.

Mankind offended God by their sin. There was a debt and penalty to pay, the worst debt of all, death and eternal judgment. God loved us so much that He sent Jesus to pay that debt and penalty, no matter the cost. The cost was his life.

Going the extra mile

"If a soldier demands that you carry his gear for a mile, carry it two miles" (Matt. 5:41)

Back in the first century, Roman soldiers were allowed by law to make a private Jewish citizen carry their pack or burden one mile, and one mile only. To the citizen, this was not considered a privilege. It was an opportunity for the soldier to mistreat him, and if he had to be at work at 9 a.m. and a soldier intercepted him at 8:55, he would not only be late for work and in trouble with the boss, but he would be tired; furthermore, it was a long walk home. Roman soldiers held Jewish people in contempt and mistreated and abused them. So, this is not a hallelujah moment by any stretch of the imagination.

Going the extra mile is making the sacrifice to show kindness, generosity, and respect to someone who is not treating you fairly, or taking advantage of you. Once again, this is a form of meekness. Use restraint, don't murder them in your heart, love your enemy, and you may just win them to Christ. We in America often say "Kill them with kindness."

Vengeance belongs to the Lord

We need to remember that ultimately it is God who will exact vengeance. Paul well understood this concept and serves it to us very succinctly in Romans 12:17-21:

"Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: 'It is mine to avenge; I will repay,' says the Lord. On the contrary:

“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.”

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good."


It couldn't be any clearer than that.

© 2012 Lori Colbo

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Comments 12 comments

Annette R. Smith profile image

Annette R. Smith 3 years ago from Orlando, Florida

Thank you for publishing this, Lori. I needed to read it today. I needed the reminders. May the Lord richly bless you in the coming year.


lambservant profile image

lambservant 3 years ago from Pacific Northwest Author

Thank you Annette. I m glad it spoke to you. May the Lord of glory bless you as well.


lifegate profile image

lifegate 3 years ago from Pleasant Gap, PA

Great hub LS. As God Himself says, "vengeance is mine". Of course that's easier said than done. May we all be reminded of our place. Have a happy new year, Sister.


lambservant profile image

lambservant 3 years ago from Pacific Northwest Author

Back at ya, LG. God bless.


midget38 profile image

midget38 3 years ago from Singapore

Lambservant, I was just reading a book, How to respond when you are mistreated by John Bevere. It suggests that we forgo our rights to be vindicated by God when we vindicate ourselves. We have to let go and let God handle it in His way. Thanks for sharing, Lambservant!


lambservant profile image

lambservant 3 years ago from Pacific Northwest Author

Excellent comment midget. Foregoing our rights is a good way to put it. It also reminds me that when Jesus left the glories of heaven and came down to live on earth as a man, he willfully laid down his rights and privileges as God to become like us. I do believe he was fully man and fully God, but he set that aside. God bless and Happy New Year.


RonElFran profile image

RonElFran 3 years ago from Mechanicsburg, PA

Thanks for a well informed discussion of an often misunderstood principle of Scripture. So many people, thinking that "turn the other cheek" does require them to be doormats, never seriously consider actually doing what Jesus commanded. Your hub may help change that.


vocalcoach profile image

vocalcoach 2 years ago from Nashville Tn.

An excellent job of clarification on this Scripture. My own interpretation is quite simple. Jesus is telling us to be "peacemakers." There is also a hint of forgiveness in such a challenge. We are to forgive everyone. God will forgive whoever he will.

Blessings to you ~ Audrey


lambservant profile image

lambservant 2 years ago from Pacific Northwest Author

Audrey, you bring up a good point.. If we don't retaliate, it defuses the situation in some cases and forgiveness is always necessary. Thanks for stopping by.

Oh I see you live in Idylwild, CA. My mom lived there for a number of years until she passed away in '02. Beautiful place.


teaches12345 profile image

teaches12345 2 years ago

THis is a good explanation of this verse that is sometimes taken out of context. We must be at peace with others as much as possible. Vengeance does not belong to us but to the Lord. There are times when we must defend ourselves or a cause, but that is entirely different. Great analogy of this verse.


Paradise7 profile image

Paradise7 2 years ago from Upstate New York

I appreciate your ideas on this bit of the Bible and I believe you have it right. That's the way I've always interpreted this piece of Scripture. The idea is not to be vengeful. Retaliation and revenge are poison to their perpetrators. Walk away.

Sometimes an unexpected act of kindness towards an unkind person will either confuse that person to the point where he/she backs off or effectively makes them think about the way they are behaving towards other people. Sometimes, not always. If returning good for evil doesn't work then once again, my personal recommendation is to walk away and let God sort the other person out. Maybe it's just not time yet for the person to find the light of God.


lambservant profile image

lambservant 2 years ago from Pacific Northwest Author

Paradise, you are a wise person. Thanks for stopping by.

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