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Matthew 5:33-39 by Robert Dean
What's your knee-jerk reaction when you think of someone slapping you on the cheek? Listen to this lesson to see what Jesus meant when He told His disciples to "turn the other cheek". Understand the law of retribution and the figures of speech Jesus uses in this passage. See how you should not use God's name or something in nature to convince others that you are telling the truth. Learn the importance of grace orientation when dealing with evil people just as Christ "turned the other cheek" when He died on the cross for sinners.
Series:Matthew (2013)
Duration:50 mins 21 secs

Swearing Oaths; Slapping Cheeks
Matthew 5:33–39
Matthew Lesson #032
May 4, 2014

Jesus is not saying everything that could be said about each of these topics. That is not His purpose. When we read through the context of the Sermon on the Mount, especially this particular section, Jesus is addressing particular topics of erroneous teaching that was present within rabbinical thought during the latter part of the second temple period. He is fundamentally addressing their concept of experiential righteousness.

That sentence right there is one that is greatly controversial. A view that is common, referred to as the Lutheran view (but many other evangelicals hold this view), is that the entire Sermon on the Mount is designed to teach that the righteousness God requires is not capable of being produced in us. To boil it all down, in their view the purpose of the Sermon on the Mount is to say, "See, this is the kind of righteousness God requires. You can't achieve it; therefore you have to gain righteousness another way, which is righteousness by faith alone in Christ alone. That is true. The issue is: is that what Jesus is teaching in the Sermon on the Mount?

As we go through this the thing that has impressed me more and more is that when Jesus goes back to the Mosaic Law at the beginning of each of these He cites the foundational passage in the Law that is subject to misinterpretation by the Pharisees. The Pharisees are addressing this in terms of in terms of the spiritual life of the nation. When we go back to the original context in the Mosaic Law the context of these commandments was not teaching a way to gain salvation. It was addressed to a nation that was viewed as a redeemed nation and the Mosaic Law was laying down a code of conduct, a way of life that should characterize a nation that was termed by God a kingdom of priests. In the Old Testament the idea was that as the Israelites obeyed the Law and applied the Law consistently they would be a distinct, unique, holy nation. And as people—travelers, businessmen, caravaners, travelled through this junction in the Middle East they would see a distinct and unique people and would marvel at their freedom, marvel at the way God had blessed them, marvel at their whole culture; and then they would go home and take the gospel (in the Old Testament sense) back to their nations. In contrast, in the church age we are told to go out to the nations. But Israel was set in the midst of the nations so that as people came to them they would see the difference.

So the Mosaic Law is basically related to experiential righteousness, not imputed righteousness. When Jesus is commenting on this in Matthew chapter five He is talking about experiential righteousness, the kind of righteousness that would characterize those who had repented in light of the imminency of the coming of the kingdom. The reality is that some people needed to repent in terms of trusting the promised seed of the woman who would be the Redeemer of Israel, the Messiah. But many needed to live a life of righteousness as described by the Law. This had been distorted, simplified, minimized by the Pharisees. They had given people a way around full obedience to the Law. This is why Jesus made the comment in 5:19: "Whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others {to do} the same, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven …" This is what the religious view was doing. It was teaching this minimalized view of application. Jesus challenges this. One of the problems was in the way they frequently swore or made oaths or vows.

So Jesus begins by stating what was taught in the Torah. NASB "Again, you have heard that the ancients were told, 'YOU SHALL NOT MAKE FALSE VOWS, BUT SHALL FULFILL YOUR VOWS TO THE LORD.'" That is referring to the Pharisaical interpretation, which they said represented an oral tradition that was handed down since Mount Sinai. What they said was that there were two tracks: the written Law, and then an oral tradition that had been passed down orally from generation to generation which was used to interpret the written Law.

Making false vows or swearing falsely is not talking about uttering some sort of profanity. It is making an oath perhaps in court, or performing a vow. "… BUT SHALL FULFILL YOUR VOWS TO THE LORD." This relates to a couple of Old Testament passages we need to look at in order to understand the background.

Leviticus 19:12 NASB "You shall not swear falsely by My name, so as to profane the name of your God; I am the LORD."

Profaning the name of your God means to use God's name in a common manner. Often we hear people comment related to not taking the Lord's name in vain. That is the same kind of thing. And usually that is simplified to attaching God's name to some other curse word. While that is in the application it is a rather superficial application of this. The more serious application of this would be when someone in some denominations, either in a worship service or maybe privately in conversation, says, "Well God has spoken to my heart and He wants me to do X, Y or Z". They are claiming divine authentication or a course of action that God has not given. They are claiming insight and revelation from God in a way that no longer takes place. It is attaching God's name to a cause when God has not personally attached His name to that statement, that cause or that system. This is what the Scriptures talk about when it says, "profaning the name of God". It is taking His name or using it in a light or trivial manner. This happens in Christian communities in many ways other than using some sort of expletive or stating some sort of profanity.

Numbers 30:2 NASB "If a man makes a vow to the LORD, or takes an oath to bind himself with a binding obligation, he shall not violate his word; he shall do according to all that proceeds out of his mouth."

Biblically there are different vows that are mentioned. There is the Nazirite vow, for example, in Numbers chapter six. We know the apostle Paul took a vow. The basic warning is not to do so rashly or abruptly and putting yourself under an obligation that you can't fulfill. The Lord emphasizes the importance of this. Deuteronomy 5:11 NASB "You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain, for the LORD will not leave him unpunished who takes His name in vain." Deuteronomy 23:21 NASB "When you make a vow to the LORD your God, you shall not delay to pay it, for it would be sin in you, and the LORD your God will surely require it of you. [22] However, if you refrain from vowing, it would not be sin in you." In other words, you don't have to make a vow. [23] "You shall be careful to perform what goes out from your lips, just as you have voluntarily vowed to the LORD your God, what you have promised."

Each of these verses warns the Israelite about making these rash vows—being impetuous—and that they need to be very careful to observe what they say because there are consequences.  We say it is a warning against the sins of the tongue.     

Proverbs 20:25 NASB "It is a trap for a man to say rashly, 'It is holy!' And after the vows to make inquiry."

Ecclesiastes 5:4, 5 NASB "When you make a vow to God, do not be late in paying it; for {He takes} no delight in fools. Pay what you vow! It is better that you should not vow than that you should vow and not pay."

So we have seen these kinds of examples in the Law and then restated in wisdom literature as something that we should pay attention to. We see that this kind of command is still restated in the New Testament, not only by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount but also by James in his epistle.

The word that is translated to swear falsely is the word EPIORKEO. There is a prefix – EPI; ORKEO is the word meaning to swear an oath. It is related to a cognate verb ORKIZO. With the prefix EX we have the word EXORKIZO from which we get our word exorcist. It was used by pagan religious actors who were trying to cast out demons. It was using some sort of an oath before God in order to gain power over the demon. So the basic meaning of the word EPIORKEO is to swear falsely. This would be in a courtroom setting. It is talking about taking an oath and swearing falsely in court. It is breaking a vow, making an oath and then not fulfilling it, or committing perjury.

Jesus addresses this. The basic idea of swearing is to make a solemn declaration or statement. And what they would do was appeal to God or in pagan religions to one of the gods or goddesses, or they would appeal to some sacred object that would give a greater validation or verification to the truth of what they were saying. In the context of Pharisaical theology the Pharisees were notorious for their oaths, and they would make these oaths on the least provocation. Also they would make various allowances. It was like they were crossing their mental fingers behind their back so that there was always some hidden exception, some sort of mental reservation that they wouldn't really have to fulfill that oath because they hadn't made that oath in the name of God. They swore by heaven, they swore by earth, they swore by Jerusalem; but see, that's not swearing by God, the oath, they said, was only really binding if you swear by God. So they were swearing by other things. This is what Jesus corrects when we get into vv. 34-36.        

Matthew 5:34 "NASB "But I say to you, make no oath at all …" The contrast isn't correcting the swearing to narrower thing, He is saying don't swear at all. Then He gives four examples which related to the way they would swear their oath. "… either by heaven, for it is the throne of God. [35] or by the earth, for it is the footstool of His feet, or by Jerusalem, for it is THE CITY OF THE GREAT KING. [36] "Nor shall you make an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black." In each one He gives an explanation.

In the Old Testament there were prominent examples of how Jews rashly entered into vows. One of them is in the book of Judges. In Judges 11:29-39 we have one of the judges by the name of Jephthah who made an extremely rash vow. He was called by God to deliver Israel from the oppression of the Ammonites. He is a worshipper of God but he is in the period of the judges, which is characterized by the phrase "everyone did what was right in their own eyes." There was no king in Israel at that time. So Jephthah did what was right in his own eyes. He didn't have much doctrine in his soul. He was empowered for a particular task—"the Holy Spirit came upon him"—a military task. He has this eclectic theology that is half pagan an half biblical, and he thinks that he has to do something to impress God so that God will give him the victory. This is the kind of human viewpoint thinking that is common. So he makes this rash vow that if God would give him victory over the Ammonites that when he returned from battle whatever came out of the door of his house to greet him he would sacrifice [olah = burnt offering] to the Lord. The first thing that came out of his house to greet him was his daughter. He isn't happy because now he has to sacrifice her to God.

That has made a lot of people uncomfortable over the years, Jews and Christians alike. This was a pagan practice and Jephthah is not portrayed as being particularly spiritual, so it is an example of how even the leaders were operating on spiritual relativism because they were influenced by the Canaanite culture around them. He has made an extremely rash vow and the Scripture says he did unto her as he vowed. This can only mean that he offered her as a burnt offering.

Another example of a foolish vow in the Old Testament was one made by Saul in 1 Samuel 14:24-45 where he was in the midst of a battle against the Philistines. He made this vow because they needed to press the battle and defeat the Philistine army. He said: "I prohibit anybody from eating until we have finished the battle". That was foolish because soldiers need to eat so that they can keep fighting. His son Jonathan was leading one of the units against the Philistines and became famished, and he ate. He had broken Saul's vow. Saul's stated punishment was that anyone who had eaten food before the battle was over would die and now by virtue of his vow was forced to sacrifice his son. This is an example of the pagan concept of a vow. In this case the people prevented him from fulfilling the vow because they were not going to let him sacrifice his son. So what we see here is an example of not taking a vow and jumping into it too soon. 

One thing we need to say is that in this passage Jesus is not prohibiting the taking of an oath in a court of law. There are a couple of passages that we have to remember from Deuteronomy. Deuteronomy 6:13 NASB "You shall fear {only} the LORD your God; and you shall worship Him and swear [take oaths] by His name." So it is legitimate in certain circumstances to take an oath in the name of the Lord. Swearing in court would be one of those. Deuteronomy 10:20 says basically the same thing. NASB "You shall fear the LORD your God; you shall serve Him and cling to Him, and you shall swear by His name."

The idea that Jesus is countering here is that unless the name of God was specifically mentioned then the oath was not really binding. So they would substitute something else, like heaven or earth or Jerusalem or their own head as a way to avoid that. They are simply saying" "In everything else I am saying, maybe it is true, maybe it is not; maybe it is white lie. But now I have to add an oath in order to make you really believe that now I am telling you the truth." The problem that Jesus points out here is that if they swear by heaven, heaven is actually the throne of God, so they were still swearing by God even though they haven't used His name. So their little tradition to try to sidestep the issue of swearing by God's name doesn't work there. It doesn't work with the earth because the earth is God's footstool. This is stated in a similar way in Isaiah 66:1, so they couldn't avoid God's presence by swearing by the earth. They couldn't do it by swearing by Jerusalem because Jerusalem is the city of God's king. It is not man's city, so when you swear by Jerusalem you are still invoking God. Then finally in v. 36 if you swear on your own head you have to recognize that you are created in the image and likeness of God, so once again you can't escape God's presence by swearing on these other things. Ultimately the oaths are all just as valid.

What Jesus is saying is that the righteous person's word should always be sufficient. He should not ever need to add something in addition to it.

Matthew 5:37 NASB "But let your statement be, 'Yes, yes' {or} 'No, no' …" In other words it should be very simple; it should always be the truth and never deviate from the truth. And then He says, "… anything beyond these is of evil [the evil one]." Remember, Satan is the father of lies. The implication is that if everything you say is the absolute truth, it never varies; then you never need to say, "Oh, I need to invoke an oath so that you know that what I am saying now is really the truth." If you feel you need to say, "I swear this is true", it implies that there are other things that you say that may not be as true. That is what is implied by needing to swear an oath. Jesus is saying that if you are righteous, if you are a believer, everything you say should be true. Otherwise you have fallen into the trap of lies from Satan and you are saying that some things you are saying may be true and some things not so true. This verse is restated in James 5:12 NASB "But above all, my brethren, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or with any other oath; but your yes is to be yes, and your no, no, so that you may not fall under judgment."

So the point that Jesus is making is that you don't need to formulate promises and all upon something in creation to substantiate a statement as being true. If you are truly righteous every statement is equally true and you never need to do something to emphasize the truth of a current statement.

The fifth correction begins in Matthew 5:38 NASB "You have heard that it was said, 'AN EYE FOR AN EYE, AND A TOOTH FOR A TOOTH.'" This deals with the law of lex talionus, the law of retribution, which is quoted from several passages in the Old Testament. It is a clear statement from the Law but Jesus is going to challenge the interpretation given to it by the Pharisees. He is not quoting the entire passage where these things are said so we need to look at a couple of these passages.

Exodus 21:23-25 NASB "But if there is {any further} injury, then you shall appoint {as a penalty} life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise."

The first one, life for life, is clearly seen to be literal. This is indicated from the establishment of capital punishment and the delegation of authority to take life in Genesis chapter nine in the Noahic covenant. Numerous places reinforce the principle of capital punishment in the Old Testament; these passages are among them. So by looking and comparing Scripture with Scripture we see that the phrase life for life is to be understood literally. But the rest isn't. If all of these were to be taken literally then that would mean if somebody poked out somebody's eye the judicial penalty would be that their eye would be poked out as well. Or if there was fighting and one man knocked out a tooth the other man then the man who punched him would have to give up a tooth. But the Law was never applied that way. The purpose for the Law was to establish the principle that the penalty should not exceed the crime. The penalty should fit the crime. These phrases are used in a figurative sense in order to get across the fact that penalties should fit the crimes.

Leviticus 24:19 NASB "If a man injures his neighbor, just as he has done, so it shall be done to him". But we don't find this anywhere in the application of the Law, that a lot of people in Israel were walking around with various disfigurements. Because it was understood to the original audience that this was a figure of speech. It was describing simply a penalty that was sufficient for the crime. [20] "fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; just as he has injured a man, so it shall be inflicted on him."

Leviticus 24:21 NASB "Thus the one who kills an animal shall make it good …" Usually there was a financial penalty that was assessed in relation to what the injury was.

Deuteronomy 19:21 NASB "Thus you shall not show pity: life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot."

In these contexts these are not statements related to personal retribution but are guidelines for magistrates in assigning the appropriate penalty in the courtroom for violating the law. In each of these statements we see that figures of speech are used. This is important to understand because much of what Jesus says, in the Sermon on the Mount even, are based on figures of speech. What causes a lot of misinterpretation is that we don't understand the figures of speech. This is particularly true in v. 39.

Matthew 5:39 NASB "But I say to you, do not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also."

Slapping someone in the face, as we will see, was really an idiom for someone who has offended or insulted somebody. It is not talking about a literal slap on a literal cheek. The Bible is filled with these kinds of idioms, similes, metaphors and other figures of speech.

In Matthew chapter four Jesus told the disciples: "I will make you fishers of men". He is not going to literally teach them how to bait a hook and throw it into a mass of people and catch a human. He is using a metaphor where He is comparing a literal activity of fishing in the lake and bringing in a catch, to evangelism, announcing a message and bringing in a group of people who have responded positively to that message.

Jesus used a simile when He describes the kingdom of heaven in Matthew 13:31 NASB " … The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed …" There is something about a mustard seed that is comparable and analogous to the kingdom of heaven.

Jesus also said it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle (and He is talking about a sewing needle) than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. Jesus is not talking literally; He is using hyperbole, which is a figure of speech or exaggeration. In Matthew 15:17 Jesus talked about false prophets "who come to you in sheep's clothing". Did false prophets actually go out and get a sheep and use the sheep's skin in order to create their wardrobe? No, He is using that as a metaphor the same way He told His disciples to go to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.  

Now before we understand what Jesus is talking about when He is talking about cheek slapping here we need to understand the first phrase: "But I say to you, do not resist an evil person". The Greek phrase for the evil one, PONEROUS, could be either neuter or masculine. If it as neuter it would refer to a principle of evil or to Satan, but that would contradict a number of Scriptures where we are told to resist the devil, the word ANTHISTEMI, which means to resist, oppose, or set one's self against something. So it should be taken as a masculine form, and Jesus is saying, don't resist. This is a primary command. Don't resist; don't oppose an evil person.

The problem here is that the Pharisees were using the law of retribution in order to emphasize always getting back at someone. Jesus says that if someone is taking advantage of you, don't make an issue out of it; don't resist them. Use some grace orientation and move on.    

Then He says, "but whoever slaps you on your right cheek …" It means to backhand someone. That is very insulting. That was the metaphor and that was how it was understood. If someone insults you, if someone is taking advantage of you, offending you, Jesus says to turn the other cheek. This isn't a verse that has to do with military application or police application, it is a verse that has to do with an individual and how they respond to someone who may be insulting or offending them at a personal level. We live in a world today where people just look for something to react to. They easily take offense at what somebody says. They are consciously and arrogantly and self-righteously reacting. We see this is a lot of areas related to racial problems.