You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But I tell you not to resist an evil person. But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. (Matthew 5:38–48—NKJV)

The religious leaders of Jesus’ day taught that “an eye for an eye” allowed for personal vengeance for wrongs. Jesus Christ corrected their error and challenged His hearers to be courageous and selfless, and to live honorably in the face of suffering for righteousness’ sake. He commands willing and thoughtful sacrifice of trivial, earth-bound things. Some in our day think our Lord taught pacifism and non-resistance in this passage. This thinking is also in error. Nowhere in these verses does he call for sacrifice of conscience, testimony, or life; His intentions are quite the opposite.

In the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5–7), our Lord was proclaiming the spiritual qualities of enduring saints in the face of horrible evil and adversity during the Tribulation (5:1–12). Following that terrible time every obedient saint will literally “inherit the earth,” the Millennial Kingdom of Christ. Endurance of the saints will require a special spiritual understanding and obedience. Jesus states in verse 20, “Unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the Kingdom of Heaven.” As He continued to preach, He began to quote various Old Testament laws and then to explain the original intent of God for each law, correcting the poor teaching of the Pharisees. One of these laws is the “eye for an eye” law.

“Eye for an eye” is known as the lex talionis, or “the law of retaliation.” Very similar laws are found in almost every culture, because fallen mankind retains a rudimentary perception of fairness. “Eye for an eye” seems the very essence of fair to most. God gives His unique application of this law in Exodus 21:24, Leviticus 24:20, and Deuteronomy 19:21.

All three occurrences of “eye for an eye” in the Old Testament are instructions to those in governmental authority, not to the individual citizen. The instruction was intended for those whose stewardship was to oversee the welfare of others. Personal vengeance is warned against in verses such as Leviticus 19:18, “You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the children of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD.” “Do not say, ‘I will recompense evil’; wait for the LORD, and He will save you” (Proverbs 20:22). “Do not say, ‘I will do to him just as he has done to me; I will render to the man according to his work’” (Proverbs 24:29).

Take a moment to notice the context of the three “eye for an eye” passages. Exodus 21:24 has some very interesting instruction for our day, since it is “eye for an eye” applied to an instance where injury is done to a pre-born infant within his mother’s womb. This passage leaves no doubt that God values human life even before birth! Leviticus 24:20 concerns capital punishment. Deuteronomy 19:21 exhorts judges to pursue the facts and apply “eye for an eye” punishment to false witnesses. All three uses are judicial in context.

The religious leaders of Jesus’ day had taken what God had intended for judicial vengeance and twisted it to permit personal revenge (even prescribing limits for it), contradicting God’s law. Before Jesus concluded His sermon, He turned pharisaical doctrine on its head as He uttered these original and astonishingly “golden” words: “Therefore, whatever you want men to do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law of the Prophets” (Matthew 7:12). What He is really teaching concerning “eye for an eye” is that when a believer, for the sake of righteousness, is subjected to insult (Matthew 5:39), or loss of personal property (40), or deprived of liberty (41), or pressed to let go of his diligently procured goods (42), or subjected to pleas for aid (42), that believer is to transform the ill-conceived will or wish of others and make it his own, personal choice for good.

Let it not escape your meditation that “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth,” life for a life judicial vengeance is exactly the punishment endured by your Savior when He paid the penalty for your sin—a full penalty precisely measured according to the exacting standards of a holy God. God’s wrath was poured out on Him so that you might live. God’s wrath for your sin has been exhausted upon His Son. He fulfilled the law so that you may live under grace, justified, and live in grace toward others!

Since the “law is our schoolmaster” in the church age (Galatians 3:24), there are great lessons to be learned. Certainly, our Lord is dealing with personal revenge, not self-defense; He does not negate the rule of law or the responsibility of your protection from the state. But a believer ought to be careful to do no wrong—intended or unintended. If a believer wrongs another, he ought to be willing to make it right. Make every effort to see to it that no one, including God, suffers loss because of you. Our Lord is teaching manly strength under divine control in difficult circumstances (Romans 12:17–21, 1 Peter 2:19–25). Trust and obey.