Watchman Nee wrote a book, “The Normal Christian Life,” in which he described what a normal or regular Christian should be. Many people who read the book thought he was writing about an especially spiritual or advanced Christian. He wasn’t. In Matthew 5:38-42, Jesus taught what real kingdom living involves. In this section of Scripture, he identified four key principles of kingdom living. D.A. Carson notes that Jesus is emphasizing in these verses that “personal sacrifice is better than personal retaliation.”
The first principle involves how we should respond to hurtful insults (vv. 38-39). The eye-for-an-eye and tooth-for-a-tooth justice is found in Exodus 21, Leviticus 24, and Deuteronomy 19. It was given to empower and define justice while also restraining personal revenge. Justice was to be determined by judicial or legal means and was never to be carried out in a personal or vigilante fashion. However, when Jesus spoke these words, many of the people interpreted the Law as a right to seek retaliation personally. Instead of seeking revenge, Jesus taught that we should turn the other cheek. The practice to which He is referring was a backhand slap to the cheek, a cultural symbol of disrespect and insult. The reaction would naturally be to strike back or get even, but Jesus said we should turn the other cheek! He was not promoting pacifism or advocating abuse, but he was emphasizing the negative force of revenge. Romans 12:17-19 makes it clear that vengeance belongs to the Lord and He will repay. We should not be involved in trading insults or reacting to personal hurts, but respond with truth and love. This type of action does not prohibit us from standing up for the rights of others or holding strong biblical convictions of truth.
Next is the issue of a lawsuit (v. 40). The law stated that a person could be sued for their inner tunic but not their outer tunic (Exodus 22:26-27). People would usually have inner clothes equivalent to our pants, shirts, blouses and dresses today. But most of the people would own only one outer cloak to keep them warm in the winter and on cold nights. Jesus counseled the people to voluntarily give up the outer cloak as well. Whatever we possess really comes from God, and we should use all that He allows us to have for His glory. The admonishment is to have the attitude that refuses to embrace a “what’s in it for me” mentality and opts for a “how can I please God and serve others” approach.
Our Lord’s third principle follows the practice of Roman conscription (v. 41). Since the Jews lived under Roman authority, a Roman soldier could commandeer a citizen to carry his pack for one mile. The Jews likely were not fond of this practice, but Jesus advised them to carry the pack an extra mile. Going the second mile, which was not required by Roman law, meant being more generous and graceful than the limits of the law. Doing more than is required or going above and beyond the call of duty is the behavior that should characterize Christians.
Finally, Christ emphasizes the importance of a benevolent and caring manner. The presumption in verse 42 is that a person who wants to borrow from us has legitimate needs. Jesus does not counsel us to give everything to someone who asks or to give every time someone asks. He is teaching us to give to a needy person who asks. This instruction is found again in 1 John 3:17-18.
Jesus used the misconceptions most of the Jews had about the law to convey to all His followers that grace is better than legalism, and generosity is better than selfishness.