An eye for an eye?

Children will often say things like this… 

  • “That’s mine!” “Mom, he took my toy!”
  • “I was there first!” “Dad, she took the swing I was on!”
  • “It’s my turn!” “Mom, he won’t share.”
  • “You got the last prize out of the cereal – I get this one!”
  • “He hit me first!” “But it was an accident!” “I didn’t mean to!” “Yes you did!” 

No one has to teach children to respond like this. It’s innate for all human beings; it’s part of our nature. And, instead of disappearing in adulthood, it often intensifies. 

We are born with an insticnt to protect and defend what we believe to be our rights. And we’ll defend our perceived rights to the point of revenge if others violate them.

Some of the most spiteful, vindictive and vengeful people are adults – not children. The offense and anger of children is usually short lived. Adults, however, will bear deep grudges and plot their revenge. 

We live in a talk-back, fight-back, get-even society – where “I dare you!” or “Just try it!” attitudes are common.

It may be expressed differently based on different temperaments or learned behaviors, but the tendency to even the score with those who wrong us is universal among humans. 

Retaliation and Revenge

The Bible is very realistic in addressing human tendencies toward retaliation and revenge.

It was vividly expressed in Cain, who in a rage of bitter envy, killed his younger brother. It gained momentum with Lamech (a distant grandson to Cain). He boasted, “I have killed a man for wounding me, a young man for injuring me” (Genesis 4:23-24). Lamech’s revenge is an example of the way unrestrained and uneven retaliation lead to chaotic society.

Eye for eye – a primary principle of most legal system

God established a law of even retribution (eye for eye) to stop the multiplication of evil (See: Exodus 21:22-25; Leviticus 24:17-22; Deuteronomy 19:15-21). This law was intended for judicial action not personal revenge (cf. Leviticus18:15-18). 

It’s the law of Lex Talionis (“measure for measure”) to make punishment proportional to the crime and it remains a primary principle of most legal system. 

As one has well-stated that, “God gives by concession a legal regulation as a dam against the river of violence which flows from man’s evil heart.”

Twofold purpose

The “Eye for an eye” law had a twofold purpose: first, to curtail further crime (Deuteronomy 19:20, “the rest will hear and be afraid,” punishment tends to deter evil) and, secondly, to limit retribution or excessive punishment (“eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand,…”, a punishment that fits the crime).

Radical Kingdom Living

How did the teaching of Jesus relate to this law?

“You have heard the law that says the punishment must match the injury: ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say, do not resist an evil person! If someone slaps you on the right cheek, offer the other cheek also. If you are sued in court and your shirt is taken from you, give your coat, too. If a soldier demands that you carry his gear for a mile, carry it two miles. Give to those who ask, and don’t turn away from those who want to borrow” (Matthew 5:38-42).

When we come to Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, He seems to place this law aside (v.38). Yet we must be careful about our interpretation. Jesus is not contesting the O.T. law itself, “he came not to destroy but to fulfill” v.17. He is not saying: “Remember that law – ‘an eye for an eye’ – bad idea! It should never have been given.” Jesus confronted the abuse of this law by those looking to justify personal revenge.

Jesus was not calling into question the proper punishment of evildoers, nor was He contradicting what the apostle Paul taught about the God-ordained role of government in punishing evil (Romans 13). He was not denying the proper place of police and civil magistrates; of just war and capital punishment. These all have their God-ordained place. I am not trying to take the force out of Jesus’ words, but to protect against misapplication of His teaching.

The command not to seek revenge (as with Jesus’ call to non-resistance in Matthew 5:38-42) is meant for one’s personal life, not not for the necessary judicial procedures of Church and State. When Jesus said, “But I say to you, do not resist him who is evil,…” it should be applied on the personal level for how Jesus’ disciples respond to mistreatment. But, on the official levels, of both church and state, “resisting him who is evil” – is an ordained purpose of God (for the Church: I Corinthians 5:13, Matthew 18:15-17; for the State: Romans 13:4; I Peter 2:13-14). It is significant that Romans 13 about the role of the state in punishing evil doers follows Romans 12 about not seeking revenge.

On the personal level, reporting a crime to authorities should be understood as an act of civil responsibility – a promoting of righteousness, not a violation of Jesus’ teaching.

“The system of judges was set up amongst the children of Israel, and when disputes and matters arose the people had to take them to these responsible authorities for judgment. It was the judges who were to see to it that it was an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth and no more. The legislation was for them, not for the private individuals – as in the law of our ad at this moment. The law is carried out by the magistrate or the judge, by the one who is appointed in the nation to do this. That was the principle; and it is a true picture of the Mosaic legislation itself. Its main object was to introduce this element of justice and of righteousness into a chaotic condition and to take from man the tendency to take the law into his own hands and to do anything he likes.” (p.272) This is precisely the problem Jesus addresses, it is helpful to recall that when Jesus says: “You have heard that it was said…” He is appealing not only to the law itself but to the common instruction and practice of the scribes and Pharisees (remember context of v.20, Jesus used other formulas to quote scripture (Matthew 4))” – D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones.

Jesus is confronting a misapplication of Old Testament law that used it to personalize what was meant for a judicial function; using it to legitimize revenge. God did not give the “eye for an eye” law to accommodate the human tendency toward revenge (cf. Leviticus19:15-18). God is not promoting the multiplication of evil – but the restraint of evil

The Pharisees on the other hand were constantly twisting and abusing the Scriptures to fulfill their own purposes. But Jesus demanded a radical lifestyle in the opposite direction of revenge. Jesus renounced the human tendency toward revenge and elevated forgiveness.

Four illustrations

“Jesus used four illustrations. There is this ‘one who is evil’ and he seeks to do us wrong: by slapping us in the face, by persecuting us at law, by commandeering our service and by begging money from us. These four illustrations confront our dignity, our comforts, our convenience and liberty, and our possessions. We read the teaching of Jesus and seem to feel that it would be enough to ask us to simply bear the single injury; the slap in the face, the loss of the shirt, and the mile of service. But Jesus taught that we are to “so completely forbear revenge that we even allow the ‘evil’ person to double the injury. Turn the cheek, give the coat; go two miles” (John Stott, p.106).

“Who lives like that?”

The answer is – those who are described in the beatitudes (poor in spirit, mourning over their sin, meek, hungering and thirsting for righteousness, merciful, pure in heart, and peace-makers).

John Stott’s word of caution is important: “…before we become too eager to evade the challenge of this teaching and behavior as mere unpractical idealism, we need to remember that Jesus called his disciples to what Bonhoeffer termed ‘visible participation in his cross.”

Charles Spurgeon said that we “are to be as the anvil when bad men are the hammers.”

In the face of intense provocation, it’s natural to seek retaliation and revenge, and it is countercultural to give yourself to forgiveness and forbearance. But the true followers of Christ who seek as their first priority the extension of God’s righteousness could not at the same time engage in the multiplication of unrighteousness without feeling convicted of wrong.

This lifestyle comes from: “…the selfless love of a person who, when injured, refuses to satisfy himself by taking revenge, but studies instead the highest welfare of the other person and of society, and determines his reactions accordingly. He will certainly never hit back, returning evil for evil, for he has been entirely freed from personal animosity. Instead, he seeks to return good for evil. So he is willing to give the uttermost – his body, his clothing, his service, his money – in so far as these gifts are required by love.” (p.107, John Stott) 

The four illustrations Jesus gave are illustrations, not regulations. Jesus was not suggesting that humans should not be treated with dignity and respect, but sometimes we won’t be and even for the cause of Christ. If or when this happens, Jesus was not saying we must ‘surrender’ or ‘neutralize’ our sense of justice, but calling his disciples to a higher path of love in overcoming evil.

Not pacifism

This is not pacifism; it is an intense spiritual activism. In a society that so highly elevates personal rights for every new group of victims this becomes a great challenge. If we took an honest look at our own dealings with people, it might surprise some of us to see how quick we are to retaliate and try to even the score.

Nothing is more natural, especially when we suffer from wounds caused by unjust treatment from another than to regard our immediate well-being as the final purpose justice should serve.

Before we indict the Pharisees for abusing O.T. judicial law to justify personal revenge we must stop and look at some of the common ways people justify revenge today. Here are a few examples:

  • “God gave me a brain, I don’t think he wants me to just lay down and be walked on.”
  • “He took advantage of me, should I just sit back and let him get away with it?”
  • “After all, it’s the principle of the matter that should be defended.”
  • “A person has to stand up for what’s rightfully theirs!”

This way of thinking has become very common. But Jesus called his disciples to a higher way of life. We must, according to Jesus, make every effort (even costly and sacrificial ones) to resist the temptation to even the score by returning evil for evil!

Six biblical guidelines when you feel like getting revenge. 

  1. First, recognize God’s place as judge (Romans 12:17-21; Gen.18:1-11; 50:14-20; Acts17; I Pet.2:22-23).
  2. Second, remember Jesus’ example (I Pet.2:22-23; Heb.12:1-4; Phil.2:5-11. Revisit his arrest, trial and crucifixion). (cf. I Corinthians 9:12).
  3. Third, refuse to multiply evil (Romans12:17-21).
  4. Four, return a blessing instead (Prov.25:21; Mt. 5:44; Ro.12:20; Prov.24:29).
  5. Five, respect God-ordained authority (Rom.13:3-4; Eph. 6:1; I Pet. 2:13-14).
  6. Six, recall God’s forgiveness of your sin (Eph. 4:31-32; Titus 3:1-5).

“As long as the natural human heart exists, evil will have to be restrained by law. Our crime-wrecked society would do well to re-examine and reapply biblical law. When God is forsaken, His righteous standards are forsaken, and His law is forsaken. Antinomianism, the doing away with law, is as much an enemy of the gospel as legalism and works righteousness. The Old and New Testaments are never at odds in regard to law and grace, justice and mercy. The Old Testament teaches nothing of a righteous and just God apart from a merciful and loving God, and the New Testament teaches nothing of a merciful and loving God apart from a righteous and just God. The revelation of God is unchanging in regard to moral law. When the church stopped preaching God’s righteousness, justice and eternal punishment of the lost, it stopped preaching the fullness of the gospel, and both society and the church have suffered greatly for it. And when the church stopped holding its own members accountable to God’s standards and stopped disciplining its own ranks, a great deal of its moral influence on society was sacrificed. One of the legacies of theological liberalism is civil as well as religious lawlessness.”

For some people, “eye for an eye” is a way of life. If you cross them, they’ll get you back — one way or another. By nature, we prefer “revenge” or “evening the score.” “I don’t get mad,” the bumper sticker reads, “I just get even.”

It’s natural on the personal level to retaliate when others treat us in ways we perceive as unfair or wrong. This is part of what makes the teaching of Jesus so profoundly unexpected. Jesus repeatedly taught us to live in unnatural, unexpected, and culturally radical ways — to live as citizens of His kingdom.

“The man who is truly meek is the one who is amazed that God and man can think of him as well as they do and treat him as well as they do… Finally, I would put it like this. We are to leave everything – ourselves, our rights, our cause, our whole future – in the hands of God, and especially so if we feel we are suffering unjustly.” – D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones

May God grant us grace to live as Jesus lived.

Steve Cornell

About Wisdomforlife

Just another worker in God's field.
This entry was posted in Wisdom and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to An eye for an eye?

  1. Michael Snow says:

    Amen. Many Christians are unfamiliar with heroes of the faith who spoke clearly on this topic.


  2. Reblogged this on WisdomForLife and commented:

    Did Jesus change this law?


  3. Pingback: Can we reconcile pro-life and pro-capital punishment? | WisdomForLife

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