What does Matthew 5:38 mean?
ESV: “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’
NIV: You have heard that it was said, 'Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.'
NASB: You have heard that it was said, ‘EYE FOR EYE, and TOOTH FOR TOOTH.’
CSB: "You have heard that it was said, An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.
NLT: You have heard the law that says the punishment must match the injury: ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’
KJV: Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth:
Jesus moves on to another "you have heard," "but I say" topic. This time, He expects His audience has heard the "law of retaliation," often summed up as an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. This comes from God's system of justice for the Israelites as described in Deuteronomy 19:21, "Your eye shall not pity. It shall be life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot."
It's a testament to Christ's influence in changing mankind that modern readers often see "eye for an eye" as vicious or harsh. The reason God gave that law was to prevent escalation, including excessive punishment for crimes. Human nature is to retaliate "plus one." In other words, if you slap me, I'll punch you. If you stab me, I'll shoot you. This pattern of revenge is what turns petty insults into riots, and minor crimes into wars. God's rule for Israel was to limit retaliation and punishment to a fair equivalent of harm. God's teaching about "eye for an eye" was meant to limit violence, not encourage it.
Christ's teaching on the matter, given in the next few verses, reveals the true intent God has for His people. So far as it goes between individual people, God's will is that we do not take revenge, at all (Matthew 5:39). This doesn't mean being weak or passive in the face of blatant violence (Luke 22:36), but it does prohibit seeking to "get even" when we're insulted or abused (Romans 12:19).
Matthew 5:38–42 is part of the Sermon on the Mount in which Jesus teaches about how to respond to insults and persecution. Old Testament law established a legal principle of ''eye for an eye,'' intended to prevent excessive revenge—punishments were meant to be proportional to the crime. In personal matters, however, Jesus sets a very different standard. In response to insults and unfair treatment, Christians are to endure, not retaliate. The following passage, speaking on loving one's enemies, adds an active component to this concept.
The Sermon on the Mount contains some of Jesus' most challenging teaching. It begins with the unlikely blessings of the Beatitudes. Jesus' disciples must do good works in order to be a powerful influence: as the salt of the earth and light of the world. The superficial righteousness of the Pharisees is not good enough to earn heaven. Sins of the heart, such as angry insults and intentional lust, are worthy of hell just as much as adultery and murder. Easy divorce and deceptive oaths are forbidden. Believers should not seek revenge. Instead, God intends us to love our enemies and pray for our persecutors. In short, we should strive to be perfect, as God is perfect.
Matthew 5 follows Matthew's description of the enormous crowds that were following Jesus (Matthew 4:25). One day, Jesus sits down on a hill to teach them, in an address we now call the Sermon on the Mount. He describes as blessed those who are poor in spirit, who mourn, and who are persecuted. Christ also explains how God's standards of righteousness go far beyond behaviors and speech; they also include our thoughts and attitudes. Meeting God's standards means perfection. Chapter 6 continues this sermon, with more examples of Jesus clarifying God's intent for godly living.
The Gospel of Matthew clearly shows the influence of its writer's background, and his effort to reach a specific audience. Matthew was one of Jesus' twelve disciples, a Jewish man, and a former tax collector. This profession would have required literacy, and Matthew may have transcribed some of Jesus' words as they were spoken. This book is filled with references to the Old Testament, demonstrating to Israel that Jesus is the Promised One. Matthew also includes many references to coins, likely due to his former profession. Matthew records extensive accounts of Jesus' teaching, more than the other three Gospels.
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