Turning the other cheek? What it meant in its historical context

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist one who is evil. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also; and if anyone would sue you and take your coat, let him have your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to him who begs from you, and do not refuse him who would borrow from you. “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.” – Matthew 5:38-45

Most of Jesus’ counsel about not resisting evil had to do with not resisting Roman authority. A Roman soldier could legally require you to carry his pack 1 stadia; Jesus said then to carry it two. A Roman soldier could legally strike you on the cheek; therefore turn the other cheek. Under the law, your coat could be held as a surety on a debt, so Jesus said, then “go naked!” Paul used his Roman citizenship to his advantage against unjust imprisonment and beatings. Jesus’ counsel had to do with not rebelling against an overwhelming army or government, however unjust that government appeared to be. He was not endorsing the government or its practices, he was dissuading his followers from trying to establish the Messianic kingdom by force of arms.
But if we look at this in context, it was not teaching on absolute pacifism either.

What did Jesus mean when he told the disciples to go and buy a sword and to carry a purse? Lu 22:36* He said to them, “But now, let him who has a purse take it, and likewise a bag. And let him who has no sword sell his mantle and buy one.”The sword in this case was a short sword called a macharia used mostly in self-defense. It was likely that since the disciples, now required to carry a supply of money for their missionary trips, would encounter brigands on the highways and byways. Under Roman law, it was legal for any person to carry such a sword for self-defense. It is one thing to be persecuted and die for your faith in Christ as a testimony and a witness; it is another to be at the mercy of thieves and lawless men, who have no interest or religious motives. Prior to his crucifixion, the disciples were told to travel without money and receive hospitality wherever they went, but he was indicating it would be different. They would need to carry provisions (the bag) a purse (money) and a macharia. However, the sword was shown not to be used to establish a Messianic kingdom, when he counseled Peter to put away the sword and then healed the ear of the temple guard.

See Also: Cowards in the Pulpit on the difference between criminal violence and persecution for one’s faith in Christ.

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8 thoughts on “Turning the other cheek? What it meant in its historical context”

  1. From Vox Day, Alt Right leader…

    “The key to understanding the concept of turning the other cheek is to grasp that motivations matter. God knows your thoughts! You are not going to fool Him. If you are refraining from striking down the man who violently humiliates you out of cowardice, then you are not turning the other cheek. You are not seeking to be perfect as your Father in Heaven is perfect. You’re just being a coward and there is less than zero spiritual benefit to you from your failure to respond. Better that you hit your attacker back, and do so harder than he hit you.”

    So, do you agree or disagree? Why?

    • I agree cowardice is not the same thing as self restraint. The scriptures recognize the right of self defense in the law, and even Jesus told his disciples at one point to buy a short sword for self defense and carry a money bag. But I believe this scripture has everything to do with dealing with Roman (governmental) authority in its abuses and how to not fall into the trap of vengeance or zealotry.

  2. Thank you. This makes so much sense. That’s why we have to keep biblical scriptures in context, not just scripture pick.


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