Matthew chapter 5. We’re continuing our study of Matthew. This is message number 44 in our Matthew series. We’ve had such a wonderful time. We’ve been doing it on Sunday night and just the last two weeks have moved to Sunday morning for our study of Matthew. We come this morning to a very, very potent, insightful, and misunderstood passage of Scripture, Matthew 5, verse 38. Listen as I read through verse 42.
“Ye have heard that it hath been said, ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth,’ 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. And if any man will sue thee at the law and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloak also. And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him two. Give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away.”
One element of the great American philosophy of life is that we all have certain inalienable rights. And we’re big on rights. In fact, maybe in our society we’ve never been bigger on rights than we are nowadays. We are hyper-conscious of our rights. We have had movements along the line of civil rights and women’s rights and children’s rights and prisoners’ rights. We have unions to demand rights for the employees. We’re very conscious of our rights. In fact, it’s not uncommon in our society to hear somebody say, “You’ll never get away with that. You can’t do that to me. I’ll get even.”
The other night, I was driving home with my family and we pulled onto the freeway, and apparently pulled in front of somebody a little more closely than he thought. I didn’t think I hit him, but apparently, I dented his psyche. And so for the next five miles, he was behind me, flashing on and off his bright lights, then honk, on and off with the lights. That was him demanding his rights to a certain area of the freeway upon which no one was allowed to infringe.
Deep down in the human heart is a retaliatory, vengeful, spiteful spirit. Part of the curse of sin, and it’s there in all of us, and it comes out in most strange ways. I always remember the story of the bride and groom who got in the horse and buggy days and rode off on their honeymoon, and the horse bolted, and the guy said, “That’s one.” Horse bolted again, he said, “That’s two.” The horse bolted yet again, he said, “That’s three,” took out a gun and killed the horse. And his wife said, “That’s terrible. Why, you can’t do that.” He said, “That’s one.”
Deep down in the human heart is this retaliatory, get-even kind of thing, and in our society, frankly, we make heroes out of the kind of people who take nothing from nobody, who don’t stand any guff. They are the strong and the tough and the courageous and the macho, and our society looks down on the meek and the non-retaliating, the gentle, the forgiving, the gracious, the merciful person who demands nothing from anybody, and we say he’s a weakling and a coward.
I was trying to analyze why America was so in love with John Wayne and why it was such a tremendous loss to the country to lose him, and I think it was because John Wayne, in a sense, is the national symbol of the crusty, tough, take-nothing-from-nobody kind of folk hero that really symbolizes American attitudes. That’s part of human nature, to not let anybody get away with anything until you’ve told them or let them know they can’t do that to you.
Basically, that’s at the heart of the Jewish miscomprehension of an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: give them what they’re due. That’s the way it was being applied in Jesus’ time. It had become a license for vengeance, it had become a basis for a vendetta, it had become a sort of a biblical permission to have a grudge, to strike back. But Jesus said, “If somebody hits you on the right cheek, give him your left. If somebody sues and takes your coat, give him your cloak. If somebody asks you to go a mile, go two. And if anybody needs what you’ve got, give it or loan it.”
That’s antithetical to everything in human society. That doesn’t cut it with the human heart. I’ve noticed something interesting in our fight for rights. Inevitably, when a fight for rights takes place in a society, the upshot of it is going to be lawlessness because when people begin to live on the basis of their rights, then a dominant selfishness begins to take place, and when you have a whole lot of people being selfish, they will invariably tread on each other. And in a fight for rights, what is lawful sort of gets pushed into the background.
C. S. Lewis found the idea of the need for rights or the struggle to get even so true of the human heart that he used it as the basis of his argument for moral law in the universe in his book on Mere Christianity. Everybody has that in them, and we have a sense of justice, and I believe that’s the image of God. But in the fall, that sense of justice became perverted into a vengeful spirit. And it isn’t so much the idea that if a person does something wrong, we want it to be made right to uphold the law and to maintain a righteous standard so that God, who made the righteous standard, can be glorified, it’s that we want to get even. And that’s the perversion of a moral righteousness given us in the creation of God.
Instead of that, we have just a retaliatory spirit, and that’s what James talks about in James 4 when he says, “From whence come wars and fightings among you? They come because you lust.” Because the normal desire for justice is perverted into vengeance and grasping and retaliation, and that’s why we have war. So, in our society, everybody fights for their rights. And we’re so big on rights right now that we’re just setting the law aside. We have a vengeful society if they don’t get their rights. I’ve had parents say to me, “You know, it’s just easier to give my kid what he wants than to try to discipline him.” And basically, that’s what society is saying.
Contrast the fight for rights, the demand for your due, with what the apostle Paul said in 1 Corinthians chapter 9. Hear him. “Have we no right to eat and drink? Have we no right to lead about a sister, a wife, as well as other apostles and is the brethren of the Lord and Cephas? Or I only and Barnabas, have we no right to forbear working?” In other words, Paul says, “I’m a minister of the gospel. Have I no right to earn a living doing that? Do I have to work to earn my living? Don’t I have a right to be paid for my ministry?” And then he says, “Don’t I have a right to marry if I so choose, and take a sister to be a wife? Don’t I have a right to those things?” Yes.
“Nevertheless,” he says, “we have not used this right, but we endure all things lest we should hinder the gospel of Christ.” In other words, Paul says, “My life is all about setting aside my rights.” You look at Romans 14 and 15 and it says, “Don’t use your liberty to make anybody else stumble,” doesn’t it? We have rights, but rights can be offensive to somebody else. And if pushed far enough, our grasping desire for our due and our rights literally obliterates law. This is precisely the issue to which our Lord speaks here in Matthew. He contrasts the ethics of His Kingdom, which is forgiveness, seeking nothing, no defensiveness, no self-protection, no rights for me, with a grasping, retaliatory, spiteful, vengeful, grudging spirit. It characterizes society.
Now, let’s see what He’s saying specifically. I remember several times in my life the occasion of standing on the Mount of Beatitudes, very near, no doubt, where Jesus gave this great sermon. Still just a beautiful green hillside, dotted with some trees, sloping down to the shore of the Sea of Galilee, little waves just rippling on the edge of the grass. I’ve stood on that hillside and I’ve imagined myself there when Jesus taught. I’ve imagined how beneath His feet stretched out the vast multitude of people who were hearing the sermon. In front of the people gathered close to Him were the Pharisees and the scribes who thought they were the best of men. And perhaps even closer to Him were the disciples.
And as Jesus speaks in this particular part of the sermon, He is speaking directly at the form of religion developed by the scribes and the Pharisees. And, you see, they believed that they had attained self-righteousness on their own merit. They believed that they were able to enter the Kingdom of God on the basis of their own self-righteousness, that they had attained a standard of excellence by law, by legalism, by ritual, and they masked the reality of their sinfulness. And so Jesus is busy in the Sermon on the Mount ripping off their masks, stripping their hypocrisies, so that they’ll see themselves as wretched sinners.
You say, “Isn’t that rather unkind?” No, the kindest thing you ever do for anybody is show them their sin so that they know they need a Savior, right? Nobody’s going to come to a Savior unless they know they need one. And so Jesus tears off the masks that they might see the sin. He has already showed them that in spite of what they thought, they were murderers; in spite of what they thought, they were adulterers; in spite of what they thought, they were liars, as we saw last week; and now He’s going to show them that in spite of what they thought, they were filled with vengeful, spiteful, grudging spirits not characteristic of the Kingdom of God, and they betrayed their sinfulness. Jesus is reiterating God’s standard to them and saying, “You fall short.”
Now, this passage has led to some confusion in many people’s minds. People have used this passage to teach lawlessness, people have used this passage to teach pacifism, they have used it to teach conscientious objection to war, they have used it to instruct on anti-capital punishments, they’ve used the passage to bring about a disbelief in justice and civil law. I mean this is not untypical. In fact, Tolstoy, the great Russian novelist, used the Sermon on the Mount and this very passage to make his main point: There should be no police, there should be no armies, there should be no soldiers, there should be no authorities in society and then, we’d have utopia. Maybe he wasn’t as great a novelist as most people think. That seems ridiculous - and it is.
But this passage has confused a lot of people. Now, we can’t get all through it this morning, we’ll have to finish it the next time we meet together, but I want lay the foundation and, hopefully, it’ll help you to get a start. Now let’s look at the same three points we’ve seen in all these illustrations in chapter 5 as Jesus exposes the sin of the Pharisees. First, we have to note the principle of Mosaic law, then the perversion of Jewish teaching, and finally the perspective of Jesus.
So let’s look first at the principle of Mosaic law, look at verse 38. Now, he says here, “You have heard that it hath been said.” Now, basically, that refers to their tradition, but in this case, it was an exact quote from the Old Testament, “An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.” Now, they’re trying to play holy, and He’s trying to show them they’re sinful, so He picks another illustration, and he says, “All right,” he says, “you go on the principle an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth. That’s how you operate. That’s what you have been told by your rabbinical traditionalists.” But behind that, it’s interesting that that is a real Old Testament quote. They had just shifted the emphasis and messed up the interpretation, as they so often did with the Old Testament.
Now let me just add this. This message, this is really a footnote. The message I’m going to give you is very important because I think, as I said earlier, concomitant with rights is a - with a struggle for rights is a certain lawlessness, and this passage is fantastic in putting into balance and perspective where the law fits in the life of a believer. The Bible upholds law and order, the Bible upholds that whole area. While we can talk about forgiveness and we can talk about turning the other cheek, it never is to the detriment of what is lawful, and we’ll see that as we go, so there’s a beautiful balance in this. And if you see your way clear through this, you’ll understand that.
All throughout the Bible, God exalts law. God made society to be lawful. In fact, you read the minor prophets and you will hear God over and over indicting Israel for unjust judges, for unlawful acts, for inequities in their nation. Law is an essential thing. Romans 13 says that the people put in positions of law are the rulers, or the agents of God. That government and authorities are ordained by God - very clear.
Now, if you want to know why God gave the law, listen as I read 1 Timothy 1:9 to 11. “The law is not made for a righteous man but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and for sinners, for unholy and profane, for murderers of fathers and murderers of mothers, for manslayers, for whoremongers, for them that defile themselves with mankind” - now, that’s homosexuality. And in a fight for homosexual rights, we are obviating the law that God has ordained to preserve a righteous standard. Always in a fight for rights, the law gets scuttled. Because if you let men have their way, the things they want are unlawful because men are evil.
And so the law is given to stop this, the law is given, he says, “For men-stealers,” - that’s kidnaping - “for liars, for perjured persons, and if there be any other thing that is contrary to sound doctrine, according to the glorious gospel of the blessed God which was committed to my trust.” Now, what is it all saying? God gave law to protect righteous men against ungodly, evil men, and at no point in time are we to obviate law.
I was reading the writing of Will Campbell this week, a sort of a woodsy-type preacher who is pretty much a rabble-rouser, and his basic statement that interested me was that what Jesus really was saying is we just need to get rid of all the law. No, that’s not it at all. There must be law. Well, you say, “If we are to forgive, if we are to turn the other cheek, if we’re to never retaliate. If somebody sues us, we don’t fight him, we just give him everything we’ve got and more. And anybody wants to borrow, we just lend it. Where does the legal recourse come? Where’s the balance?
“What happens if somebody commits a crime against me, do I just say, ‘It’s all right, brother, it’s all right. After all - would you like anything else? Take anything.’” Is that what we do, we just turn him loose, we just let them all go and just forgive them? Is that what this is saying? Or do we uphold the law and punish them? Is that what it’s saying? Well, I hope you want to find out.
Let’s look again at verse 38. The statement is this: “An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.” Now, I’ve heard people say, “Boy, I’m telling you, that kind of stuff is merciless, that’s that bloodthirsty, Old Testament stuff.” And you know, some of the old critics of the Bible used to say there was a different God who wrote the Old Testament. That’s right. The God of the New Testament is not the God of the Old Testament. I mean the God of the Old Testament was an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, I’ll get you, you know. Whoever does anything to you, get them back, and he pokes your eye, poke his eye. Knocks your tooth out, get his. Is that what it’s saying?
You know why people interpret it that way? Because that’s the way the human heart is. But that’s not the way God’s heart is, and that’s not what it means in the Old Testament when it says that. Now let me help you. Starting in Exodus 20, you have the law of God basically codified, systematized. And in the twentieth chapter of Exodus, you have the moral law - that’s between a man and God, a woman and God, the moral law. But in 21 to 23 of Exodus, you have the civil law. The moral law is taken care of between a man and God; the civil law is taken care of within the framework of magistrates and judges and courts and duly constituted authorities.
God instituted judges and magistrates and authorities to take care of civil matters. Now watch this. You have three times in the Old Testament where the phrase, “An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth,” is mentioned. All three of those times relate to a civil situation. They relate to something occurring within a duly constituted authority (a judge, a magistrate, et cetera). “An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth” is not a statement that is in any way related to personal relationships. But in fact that’s precisely what the Pharisees had done with it. They took a divine principle of judicature, a divine principle for the courts, and they made it a matter of daily vendettas.
Now let me show you why I say that. Let me give you the three Scriptures where this phrase is mentioned. The first is in Exodus 21, in the civil law. Just listen as I read. “If men strive and hurt a woman with child, so that her fruit depart from her, and yet no mischief follow, he shall be surely punished according as the woman’s husband shall lay upon him, and he shall pay as the judges determine.” In other words, you harm a woman with child - and we won’t go into all of the possibilities, there could be harm where she doesn’t lose the child, there could be harm where she does lose the child - but the point is then the husband has the right to seek some damages and the judge will determine.
In other words, this is a civil situation. The husband doesn’t to and get a club and beat up the guy. This is not vigilante approach. This is not personal vengeance. In order for there to be structure in law and order, and in order for there to be preservation of society, you cannot have personal vengeance. And so even in the Old Testament, in civil law, there were judges to deal with these matters, and so the judge determines. “If any mischief follow, then thou shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burning for burning, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.”
“If a man smite the eye of his servant.” Let’s say you’ve got a servant and you get mad at your servant and you haul off and belt your servant. For some reason or other, you knock his eye out or you wound his eye so he can’t see. Or the eye of his maid and the eye perish, then let the servant go free for his eye’s sake. And if he smites out his manservant’s tooth or his maidservant’s tooth, he shall let him go free for his tooth’s sake. In other words, within the framework of the civil law, God was protecting the weak from the strong. He was protecting the good from the evil by saying, “There will be just recourse.”
But you notice the term “judges” there? This is civil. This is not a matter of personal vengeance. If you’re a servant and your employer knocks your tooth out, you don’t catch him at an unwary moment and knock his out. You would go to the court in Israel and you would say, “This is what happened,” it would be confirmed in the mouth of two or three witnesses, and the just due would be given to you, you would be set free. And so this would temper the master’s treatment of his slaves if he knew that he struck his slave and his slave lost a tooth, he lost a slave. That would be a high price to pay.
You see, law is a restraint, and when justice is enacted speedily and equitably, it has a great effect on society. There is a second use of this same phrase in Leviticus 24. “If a man cause a blemish in his neighbor, as he had done, so shall it be done to him, breach for breach, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, as he hath caused a blemish in a man, so shall it be done to him again.” In other words - now mark this - there is to be equity. The punishment is to fit the crime, and it is a civil setting.
Now, the third one is in Deuteronomy 19 - now listen. “One witness shall not rise up against a man for any iniquity, or for any sin, in any sin that he sinneth. At the mouth of two witnesses, or at the mouth of three witnesses shall the matter be established.” All right, if you have sufficient witnesses, the man has done something, you’ve got witnesses coming. Where are they coming? This is a court setting, this is a tribunal, this is a magistrate, this is a civil thing.
“If a false witness rise up against any man to testify against him that which is wrong, then both the men between whom the controversy is shall stand before the Lord, before the priests and the judges which shall be in those days. And the judges shall make diligent inquisition, and if the witness be a false witness and testify falsely against his brother, then shall he do unto him as he thought to have done to his brother, so that thou put the evil away from among you.”
You know how to get rid of evil in your society? Give just punishment speedily for people who commit crimes, even perjury, as in this case. “And those which remain shall hear and fear, and henceforth commit no more any such evil among you. And thine eye shall not pity.” Now, notice this: There is no place in a law court for pity. You see? Pity is not in a law court. The law demands justice. If society is to be preserved, there must be justice. The court is not the place for pity.
I’ll always remember the judge in Pasadena who felt sorry for the rapist and let him go, and then he raped and murdered a nine-year-old girl, and the judge felt sorry for the little girl. The court is not the place for pity, it is the place to hold the standard of righteous law high. Why? Because that and that alone will preserve society and put fear in the hearts of men.
You take a sinful man, innately sinful with a depraved nature and give him his rights, and he’ll run right into chaos if you don’t make consequences for his behavior. And I’ll tell you, parents, start it with your children. If there are no consequences in the behavior of your children, they will never learn what it means to live a righteous life. Never.
And so he says at the end, Deuteronomy 19:21, “Life shall go for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.” Now listen. In all three of those passages, you will see that the law was for the civil courts. It even mentions judges and magistrates several times. The point is this: The law was never to be taken into the hands of an individual. God knew that would be utter chaos. You cannot have anarchy and preserve society. So the intent of the Mosaic law was to control sin - in this case, the sin of anger, violence, and revenge.
And in our own, you know, what we call rugged individualism, boy, we want to strike back. Even in marriage, you know, we play that one-upmanship deal, don’t we? You know, you just feel like she’s got the upper hand for a while, and you got to figure out a way to get back on top, get even. But God had another way to go. You say, “Well, now wait a minute, John. You just said this is Mosaic law, an eye for an eye, tooth for tooth, maintain the standard of justice.” Yes, that’s right - in the courts. In the courts. But that is not all that the Old Testament teaches, and we’ll see that in a few moments.
But notice this one thing, and this is the intent of the Old Testament law. The statement, “An eye for eye, a tooth for a tooth, a hand for a hand, a foot for a foot,” breach for breach and all those, you know what it means? The punishment must fit the crime - no less and no more. It was a restraint on the innate vengeance that’s in an evil heart. You see? An eye for an eye didn’t mean, “Boy, when you get it, give it back.” It meant that when justice functions, let it never go beyond its bounds. If it’s only a tooth, then only a tooth should be taken, or in kind, and usually it was money to compensate, not an actual tooth.
In other words, God was limiting the innate, evil human heart, which always seeks to go beyond how it’s been offended. For example, the illustration pulling in front of the guy. All I did was pull in front of the guy, he didn’t even have to put his brakes on, but he just was irritated because he liked looking at the back end of the other car, I suppose, and so he was irritated, but he didn’t just pull around and get in another lane and - for five miles, blink, blink, blink, blink, you know, completely beyond what anything that I had done demanded.
You want to know something? Nobody ever murdered anybody because they got murdered. Never. They go way beyond. “You mess around with my girlfriend, bang, you’re dead.” It’s always beyond, it’s always an overreaction, and that’s why God said an eye for eye and a tooth for tooth, no more, no less. Put the boundaries on justice. In the Old Testament, it doesn’t mean take personal revenge. That isn’t the idea at all.
Now, this is the oldest law in the world, did you know that? It’s known as lex talionis. It’s the oldest law in the world. We found it in the Code of Hammurabi. Sometimes it’s called tit for tat, sometimes it’s called quid pro quo. It just means equal punishment for the crime. Tit for tat. We found it in the Code of Hammurabi, it says this: “If a man has caused the loss of a gentleman’s eye, his eye shall be caused to be lost. If he shattered a gentleman’s limb, one shall shatter his limb.” In other words, bound up in the human heart is a sense of justice. But the problem is it gets perverted into vengeance.
Now, don’t miss the point, that is a good law. That is a good law. It’s a law to put fear in the hearts of people. You know what? That law doesn’t do anything at all but good for righteous people. Do you know that? It just protects them. It protects them. And people say, “Oh, you know, we can’t have all these laws, it encumbers us.” Listen, the more strict the law, the more protection for the righteous people. All they affect negatively are people they ought to affect negatively, evil people whose evil is out of control.
Now let me give you several thoughts. First of all, it’s a just law. I’ll tell you why. It’s a just law because punishment should fit the crime. That’s exactly right. Let me give you an illustration: Judges 1:6 and 7. It’s not anything more than justice, it’s just equal. “Then Adoni-Bezek fled, and they pursued after him, caught him and cut off his thumbs and his big toes.” Now, that’s strange. You say, “What did they do that for? He was an enemy, they cut off his thumbs and his big toes?” Yes.
Verse 7, “And Adoni-Bezek said, ‘Three score and ten kings having their thumbs and their big toes cut off gathered scraps under my table, as I have done, so God has requited me.’” He was busy cutting off other people’s thumbs and toes, and so he got his own cut off. Now, there is illustration of what was done in an Old Testament setting.
Did you know today in Iran, when they catch a thief, what they do to him? What do they do? Cut off his hands. They cut off his hands. Now, that has a tremendous effect on shoplifting. Now, I’m not saying that I want people’s hands cut off, what I’m saying is people are sinful. I’m sinful. And if there aren’t rules and there isn’t some fear put in our hearts, we will pursue an evil path, do you see? It’s a just law. “Whatsoever a man sows,” said Paul, “that shall he also” - what? - “reap.” “Judge not, lest you be judged.” “As you have measured it out, so shall it be measured to you.”
Secondly, it’s a merciful law. An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth is merciful because it limits vengeance, it does away with the vendettas, it does away with the blood feuds. You know, you’ve read so many times about a native, you know, he goes over to the other tribe and he kills somebody in the tribe and what happens? The whole tribe comes over and slaughters everybody in the other tribe. No, no, no. No, that law says only the person who committed the crime and only commensurate with the crime should be the punishment. It’s a merciful law. It puts a lid on human vengeance.
If a master of a slave brutally beat his slave and he lost a tooth, he’d have to free that slave. The courts would free that slave. That slave could take his case to court - he’d be set free. And what that did was restrain an evil master, you see? It’s merciful. You see, the law never hurts the good and the righteous people.
Thirdly, it therefore is a beneficent law. It was designed, as I said, to protect the weak against the strong, the peaceful from the violent. You see, our suffering society gets everything twisted. We talk about rights so much now that it seems often today that criminals have more rights than honest people. Our suffering society, overrun with crime and violence, would do well to reexamine the Old Testament law. But you see, once you deny God and once you let that go, everything is gone.
I believe the pulpit has to be the place to put this all back into perspective again. We have to preach a just character in the heart of God, and we have to enact a just, lawful discipline in the church. And we have to preach an eternal punishment in hell. Why? So that the world knows there is right and wrong and reward and consequence. And I believe when the pulpit went liberal and when the pulpit stopped preaching the character of God and stopped preaching hell and eternal punishment and the church stopped disciplining sin that society just fell into the flow.
Maybe we can lay the whole thing at our own doorstep. If we’ve got an effeminate generation that wants to abolish capital punishment, turn prisons into country clubs, relax justice in a violation of God’s law, maybe it’s because we haven’t proclaimed it the way we should have. That’s the legacy of liberalism. To restrain evil is merciful, to restrain evil is beneficent, not to restrain evil, not to have punishments, not to have the things the way they should be is to allow evil to run rampant and everybody pays the price.
Arthur Pink says, “Magistrates and judges were never ordained by God for the purpose of reforming reprobates or pampering degenerates but to be His instruments for preserving law and order, and that by being a terror to the evil, Romans chapter 13 says, they are to be an avenger to execute wrath on him that doeth evil.” He’s right. There’s to be terror. The law has been ignored because God’s character has been ignored, because a sense of eternal punishment has been ignored, because the church doesn’t even bother to discipline.
Pink further says that “Conscience has become comatose. The requirements of justice are stifled. Maudlin concepts now prevail, as eternal punishment is repudiated, either tacitly or in many cases openly. Ecclesiastical punishments are shelved, churches refuse to enforce sanctions and wink at flagrant offenses. The inevitable outcome has been the breakdown of discipline in the home and the creation of a public opinion which is mawkish and spineless. Schoolteachers are intimidated by foolish parents and children so that the rising generation are more and more allowed to have their own way without fear of consequences. And if some judge has the courage of his convictions and sentences a brute for maiming an old woman, there is an outcry against him.”
This is the legacy we have in our country. And so Jesus, whatever He says will uphold the Old Testament law. He won’t obviate it, he won’t change that. If God said the law is a just law, the law is a merciful law, the law is a beneficent law, and the law has a reason to be, Jesus will not change that. Why? Because Jesus said, “Not one jot nor one tittle shall in any wise pass from the law until all be fulfilled.” And He said, “Anybody who breaks one of the least of these commandments, or teaches anybody else to do that, is the least in the Kingdom of heaven.” He said, “I am not come to destroy the law, but to fulfill it.” So what He’s doing here when He says, “But I say,” is not obviating the law but saying, “Let me clarify what God meant. I speak for God.”
As I said earlier, that’s not the whole of the Old Testament law - there’s so much more. Law must be upheld, justice must rule, there must be a right sense of justice. But on the other hand, what should be our attitude? In the work of justice, do we hate the criminal? Do we feel vengeance and bitterness and spite? Listen to what the Old Testament also teaches. Leviticus 19:18. “Thou shalt not avenge or bear any grudge against the children of thy people.” That’s the same book - same author - Moses.
You should never hold a grudge. You should never avenge. Oh, if there’s a crime committed, then you should seek the law to do its work because that preserves society and exalts God, who wrote the law. But your heart is filled with forgiveness and your heart is filled with love so that Jesus says, “Love your enemies and do good to those that spitefully use you and persecute you.”
I’ve stood my door in my own home under the threat of a man coming in with a knife to maim one of my children. What would I do if he came in and killed one of my children? I thought that through pretty heavily in those days when we were going through that. What would I do? Well, what Jesus is saying to me to do would be this: Catch the man, hold the man. If he was hungry, feed him. And if he was thirsty, give him to drink. And if he needed Christ, give him the gospel. And most of all, forgive him and love him, and then let the law do exactly what God gave the law to do.
See? They work together, one belongs in the courts and the other belongs in my heart. An attitude of forgiveness. And that’s why Proverbs 25:21 says this: “If thine enemy” - and when we’re talking about enemy here, we’re not talking about the guy over the fence who doesn’t cut his weeds and they blow in your yard, we’re talking about somebody who comes and kills your family, see. It’s a serious enemy, right? “If your enemy hungers, give him bread to eat, and if he’s thirsty, give him water to drink.”
I couldn’t help but think of that film of Nicaragua where the soldier was standing over Bill Moyers, the NBC correspondent, just watching him lie on the ground, and blew a bullet into his head. That is human vengeance. The Old Testament says, “If your enemy hungers, give him bread to eat; if he thirsts, give him water to drink.” But it also says if he commits a crime, take him to court, to the judges, to give him due punishment for his crime.
Proverbs 24:29 - listen to this. “Say not ‘I will do so to him as he has done to me.’” Don’t say that - don’t say that. That’s vengeance. Jesus hangs on a cross, they’ve set about to murder Him, He knows it’ll be a little time until they’ll murder His disciples. He looks down the ages and He sees all the heroes of the faith who will die in martyrdom. He looks at an ungodly, unruly world and says to them, “Father,” - what? - “forgive them.” “Forgive them.”
Now, He knew that justice would take its course, and He knew if they died without repentance, they’d spend eternity in hell, and yet His heart was a heart of forgiveness. So when I catch that man in my house who’s killed my child, I must forgive him in the love of Christ, and I must tell him about Christ, and I must feed him, and I must do that, but on the other hand, I must let the law take its course because that is to uphold the divine standard. I cannot say I will do so to him as he has done to me.
Now, this is precisely the point, beloved. Listen. We come to the second thought - and I’ just going to mention it and then we’re going to close. The Pharisees had perverted this great truth into a personal vengeance principle. Boy, if somebody gets your tooth, get his, see? And instead of taking it as a limit on vengeance, they took it as a mandate for vengeance. Their emphasis was wrong. They removed it from the courts, they made it a personal revenge, and they used it to justify hearts full of hate. And Jesus is saying to them, “You’re not righteous. You’re not righteous at all. If you were righteous, you wouldn’t be vengeful.” They cherished a spirit of retaliation.
You say, “Well, John, how do you find this kind of balance where you can uphold the law of God and still in your heart be free to forgive?” I’ll tell you how - very simple - at least the concept stated simply this: The only person who is non-defensive, non-protective, non-vengeful, never bears a grudge, has no spite in his heart, is a person who has died to self. Right? What is there to defend? What is there to defend? If I die to self, what is to defend? But if I’m going to fight for my rights, then I prove the point that self is on the throne, self is ruling.
Jesus had died to self in the sense that He had abandoned Himself to the Father’s will, and so if He died, He died. Paul had abandoned himself to the Father’s will and died to self, so that he says, “If I live, I live to the Lord. If I die, I die unto the Lord. So whether I live or die, I’m the Lord’s.” He knew what it was to say, “I die daily.” If Paul had lived for himself, he would have gone through his life defending himself against his critics - he never did. No. You see, selfishness is defensive, it’s protective, it’s vengeful, it’s spiteful, it’s reactionary. And so if we are to have the spirit that Jesus asked for, we have to die to ourselves.
Die to ourselves. One of the biographers of William E. Gladstone, the great British Prime Minister, said this of Gladstone, “Of how few who have lived for more than 60 years in the full light of their countrymen and have as party leaders been exposed to angry and sometimes spiteful criticism, can it be said that there stands against them no malignant word and no vindictive act? This was due, not perhaps entirely, to Gladstone’s natural sweetness of disposition but rather to self-control and a certain largeness of soul, which would not condescend to anything mean and petty” end quote.
Well, you can be in a situation like that where you’re the prime minister - and he was a dedicated Christian - where you’re criticized by everybody and never have a vindictive response or a malignant word in response. You’re manifesting the spirit Christ is talking about. What about the death of self? If someone kills my child, if I have died to self, I don’t take it as a personal grief. I will uphold the law for the glory of God, but I’m not going to strike that man back out of personal anger and vengeance of, “Look what you’ve done to me.” No.
The heart of the matter, then, is to understand what it means to die to self. Listen, maybe this will help. When you’re forgiven, or neglected, or purposely set at naught, and you sting and hurt with the insult or the oversight, but your heart is happy, being counted worthy to suffer for Christ, that is dying to self. When your good is evil spoken of, when your wishes are crossed, your advice disregarded, your opinions ridiculed, and you refuse to let anger rise in your heart, or even defend yourself, but you take it all in patient, loving silence, that is dying to self.
And when you lovingly and patiently bear any disorder, any irregularity, any annoyance, when you can stand face-to-face with waste and folly and extravagance and spiritual insensibility and you can endure it as Jesus endured it, that is dying to self. And when you are content with any circumstance, any food, any offering, any clothing, any climate, any society, any solicitude, any interruption by the will of God, that is dying to self.
And when you never care to refer to yourself in conversation, or to record your own good works, or itch after any commendation from others, when you can truly love to be unknown, that is dying to self. When you see your brother prosper and have his needs met and can honestly rejoice with him in spirit and feel no envy nor question God while your own needs are far greater and your circumstances more desperate, that is dying to self. And when you can receive correction and reproof from one of less stature than yourself and can humbly submit inwardly as well as outwardly, finding no rebellion or resentment rising up within your heart, that is dying to self.
Ask yourself a question: Are you dead yet? If we are to know the balance between holding up the law of God in an evil society and pouring out a heart filled with forgiveness, filled with love and empty of any vengeance, empty of any self, it will be when we learn what Jesus meant when He said this: “If any man will be my disciple, let him” - what? - “deny himself. Take up his cross daily and follow me.” Let’s pray together.
I think, Father, of the words of the apostle Paul, whose great prayer was “That I may know Him” - and how? - “by being made conformable to His death.” We learn from the sufferings of Jesus Christ how He responded in His heart, forgiving the very crucifiers. Being reviled, He reviled not again, only reaching out in love.
Father, may that spirit be in us, may we die to self as Christ did, in the sense that He obeyed the Father’s will, even in death. May we be willing to crucify ourselves. May we not be defensive or protective. Like Paul in 1 Corinthians 4, may we not justify ourselves.
God, help us to know the balance between holding up your law for your glory and the preservation of righteousness in society, and having hearts of forgiveness - even to the people who break that law, even if they break it against us and wound us in the breaking. Teach us to die to ourselves and to live unto you. We pray for Christ’s glory. Amen.
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