Retaliation and Grace of God

Series: The Sermon on the Mount

Speaker: Pastor Justin Wheeler

Scripture: Matthew 5:38-40

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What I want to do this morning is to call us again to the foot of the mountain to hear from Jesus as He continues to preach the Sermon on the Mount. In this sermon, Jesus is teaching us what it takes to enter His Kingdom and what it looks like for us to live as citizens of His Kingdom. He wants us to know how to become His disciples and how to live as His disciples.

He kicked things off with a list of beatitudes, statements about happiness and how to find it. But each statement takes our natural sensibilities and turns them upside-down. Jesus tells us in verse 3 that happiness comes to those who are poor in spirit; happy are the spiritually bankrupt. Then He tells us that happiness comes to those who mourn. IOW, happy are the sad. Then happiness is ready and waiting for those who are meek and hungry for righteousness. Happy are those who are starving for righteousness.

What a paradox. What does this mean? These beatitudes are aimed at changing our behavior, they are aimed at changing our heart. What Jesus is showing us here is the heart attitude of those who enter into His Kingdom. Our Journey into following Christ starts with brokenness, a brokenness that occurs when we see God for who He truly is and by contrast we will see ourselves as truly bankrupt before Him. The opening portion of the Sermon on the Mount is not a code of ethics that we must follow in order to become the people of God, but rather it strips us bear to make us understand that if we are to have peace with God it won’t come from us.

No good work on our part can save us from our sin. A lifetime of works can’t save us from sin. We need forgiveness and that only comes as a gift of God’s grace. We don’t simply need to change our behavior, we need a new heart and He is the only One who can truly give us a new heart. This is where our journey in the gospel begins; it begins with true brokenness before God that reveals just how sinful we are and this will cause us to mourn over our sin, and to long for a Savior who will forgive us and lead us to God.

This is the first part of what Jesus wants to teach us in this sermon, how to enter into His Kingdom. The second part is what do we do once we are in? How are we to live as members of His Kingdom? So let’s read our text for today.

Matt 5:38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39 But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. 40 And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. 41 And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. 42 Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you. 


What Jesus is calling for in these verses (and the section that follows) is the pinnacle of Christian conduct. He is calling for us to respond to evil with humility, patience, mercy and grace. He is calling us to live in complete contradiction to our natural instincts, which means that we must be made new before we can hope to live like this. Jesus is not imposing this way of life on the lost kingdom of this world, but He is calling for His born-again people to live like this.

In order to live like Jesus, we are going to learn three things: Justice is Good, Mercy is Better, and Grace is Best.

Sermon Focus…

I. Justice is Good (V. 38)

V. 38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’

This verse comes straight out of the OT law of Moses and it is referred to as the law of retaliation or Lex Talionis. This law was even recorded in the Code of Hammurabi (Babylonian) as the foundation for justice in the case of person to person interaction. The point of this law was to regulate the human urge to retaliate by legally demanding that any punishment handed down must fit the crime.

Ex 21:22 “When men strive together and hit a pregnant woman, so that her children come out, but there is no harm, the one who hit her shall surely be fined, as the woman’s husband shall impose on him, and he shall pay as the judges determine. 23 But if there is harm, then you shall pay life for life, 24 eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, 25 burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe. 

Lev 24:19 If anyone injures his neighbor, as he has done it shall be done to him, 20 fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; whatever injury he has given a person shall be given to him.

Justice is about balance and this law was given to ensure that the scales were even on both sides. The rule of lex talionis has the double effect of defining justice and also restraining revenge; it was designed to prevent severe retribution and vigilante justice. But from our own experience we know that laws alone are no match for our human desire for revenge.

Have you ever heard the phrase, “Revenge is a dish best served cold?” The meaning of this devilish saying is that the most satisfying approach to exacting revenge is to take your time, to plan out your vengeance at a time when no one suspects you and then to savor the moment of revenge as you would a fine meal. I was in middle school when I first read a short story by Edgar Allen Poe, which captured this spirit of intentional vengeance in a very disturbing way.

The story begins like this,

The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as best I could; but when he ventured upon insult, I vowed revenge. You, who so well know the nature of my soul, will not suppose, however, that I gave utterance to a threat. At length, I would be avenged; this was a point definitively settled— but the very definitiveness with which it was resolved, precluded the idea of risk. I must not only punish, but punish with impunity (without the possibility of being punished for what I planned to do). A wrong is unredressed when retribution overtakes its redresser. It is equally unredressed when the avenger fails to make himself felt as such to him who has done the wrong.[1]

Montresor had received a wound from Fortunato, an insult that in his heart he believed demanded revenge, but not just any revenge would do. He would proceed quietly and would plan it out in such a way that he would not get caught. His revenge would be a private matter, beyond the reach of the law, but it would leave a final impression on Fortunato. What began as an insult ended with murder. Montresor’s vengeance was a secret hidden deep in the catacombs and walled in with brick and mortar.

This story is one of a countless number of revenge stories that have captivated audiences for ages. Each of these stories shows us in painstaking detail just how deep our desire for revenge goes. In our hearts we long for vengeance, not justice but vengeance. Our natural instinct is not just to hit back but to hit back even harder and this has been the natural instinct of humanity as far back as Lamech in Genesis 4 who boasted, “I have killed a man for wounding me, a young man for striking me.”

God gave this law as a way to restrain our natural sinful inclination toward revenge and retaliation and as such these laws are aimed at establishing justice in society. But Jesus wants us to understand that there is more to this law than the letter. Below the surface, at the heart-level Jesus wants us to see the root of the problem. The law was given to curb our behavior, but it was also given to reveal the corruption in our hearts and that is what Jesus wants us to see.

II. Mercy is Better (V. 39)

At the heart of adultery is the sin of lust. At the heart of murder is the sin of anger. At the heart retaliation is the sin of vengeance, to be the self-justified distributor of justice.

There is a righteousness greater and more beautiful than self-justice— letting God be the judge and righteousness maker, the one who puts the world to right. This is a consistent theme in the Old Testament regarding interpersonal relations— do not take your own vengeance but let God be the one who sets things to right.[2]

1 Sam 24:12 (David said to Saul) May the Lord judge between me and you, may the Lord avenge me against you, but my hand shall not be against you.

IOW, Revenge is a dish best not served, because vengeance belongs to the Lord. God has established the means by which justice is meted out and it doesn’t look like Batman or the Punisher. He has established the state, flawed though it is, as the societal institution where justice is handed down. Then beyond the state there is the promise that God Himself will judge all the earth and render to every human being what they deserve for their crimes and sins.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is not rejecting the rule of law with regard to the state’s role to seek justice (retribution) but he is teaching us not to take vengeance into our own hands. In fact, he is telling us to fight against the heart impulse of vengeance by showing mercy to people who would seek to take advantage of us.

V. 39 But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil.

I actually think this verse is better understood to read, “Do not set yourself against the evildoer.” The idea is that we don’t take vengeance into our own hands, but in the next verse Jesus takes our understanding further. He says, “When someone insults you with a backhanded slap across the face, don’t lash out to get revenge but instead give that person a chance to double the insult.” This is the first of four illustrations that Jesus uses to teach us about personal restraint.

To turn the other cheek is to reject revenge, to be humble and gentle even when the other person doesn’t deserve it. To turn the other cheek is to show mercy and this is what Jesus calls His disciples to do in the face of an insult to our dignity.

He also tells us to be willing to give away our coat and the shirt off our back. In this case, the law could not demand that a person give away their coat and their shirt, but they could be willingly given. Jesus is calling for His disciples to go above and beyond what justice requires in order to show mercy to others.

In the third illustration, He tells us to go the extra mile. Roman law gave soldiers the right to force a civilian to carry his gear for one mile. This law was designed to give soldiers relief while on active duty. This seems like a fair trade-off for those risk their lives, but don’t forget that the Jews were occupied by Rome. This law forced the Jews to carry the weapons that their oppressors would use against them. But Jesus says, “When they take away your freedom and force you to serve for a mile, show them mercy and go an extra one.”

Finally, Jesus calls us to give to the one who asks and not to refuse the one in need. Now, wisdom would require us to think carefully before giving money to a fool, or a drunkard, or an addict. “If a man is not willing to work, let him not eat (2 Thess 3:10).” In each of these cases we don’t abandon wisdom. The command to turn the other cheek does not imply that we refuse to rescue someone who is being abused or attacked. The point here is that we deny the selfishness in our heart that would cause us to refuse to help someone in serious need.

Jesus wants us to understand that this law of retaliation can help to establish justice within society, but it also reveals that deep down we have a serious problem in our heart.

His teachings in these verses are a call to a way of being in the world that teaches us to look inward and become a different kind of people, (He is teaching) a vision of truly Christian virtue. A radical reorientation to our way of thinking that would have us see justice as good but mercy as better.[3] This is a vision of Christian values that rebukes our flesh and confounds the world. This is a vision for the Christian life that is more concerned with righteousness than personal justice.

By the way, Paul understood this teaching and he restated it for us in Romans 12.

Rom 12:17 Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. 18 If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” 20 To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Justice is good and right and it has been established by God. He has appointed the law to govern our behavior, He has appointed the state to govern our society and in the end, He will judge all men according to their actions. Justice if good, but mercy is better.

Mercy is better in that it teaches us to deny ourselves and to fight against the sinful impulse of selfishness. Jesus demands of us that we let mercy, not justice, be the motivating ethic in how we interact with others. Mercy means that we reject revenge, that we deny ourselves and that we seek the good of others, even when they wrong us.

Justice is good, mercy is better, but lastly, I want us to see that grace is best.

III. Grace is Best (1 Peter 2:21-24)

Jesus called His disciples with this invitation, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross and follow me.” As believers in Christ, His way is our way. His path is our path. His fate is our fate. His example is ours to follow.

The Apostle Peter heard Jesus invitation and He followed. He gave up everything to surrender his life to Jesus’ teaching and to follow Jesus example. Yes, Peter stumbled along the way just like we do, but in the end, Peter knew that following Jesus would lead us to Heaven.

Listen to Peter explaining how we too are to follow Christ.

1 Pet 2:21 For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. 22 He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. 23 When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. 24 He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed.

There is a principle at work here that we don’t come to naturally, and it’s that God values meekness and humility. He values self-sacrificial love and He not only calls His people to embrace it, He embraced it Himself. The greatest display of selfless love (Grace) that this universe has ever seen was when Christ gave His life in our place.

Brothers and sisters, what Jesus is calling us to do with regard to not resisting those who do evil is exactly what He did Himself. When they came to arrest Him on trumped up charges, He didn’t fight back. When they accused Him of blasphemy He didn’t answer their charges. When they struck Him in the face He didn’t fight back. When they mocked Him in the barracks He didn’t defend His dignity. When they crucified Him He didn’t work to free Himself even though He could have done so.

He could have called down angels to free Him and destroy His enemies, but He chose to stay on the cross because love is the only thing powerful enough to overcome our sin. Jesus knew the power of mercy and the beauty of grace so He told the angels to stand down as He took our place on that cross. He didn’t deserve it but He denied Himself and took up the cross.

In His flesh, Jesus bore the penalty for the sins of all His people, all those who would believe. He absorbed the wrath of God that we deserved so that we could go free. With infinite dignity, matchless self-control and amazing grace; Jesus refused to retaliate.

1 Pet 2:23 When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly.


It’s not about what our flesh wants, it’s about what the soul needs.

Our calling is to follow Christ’s example. We do not follow His example in order to be saved, but because we are saved by grace and through faith we follow His example. Jesus is first our savior and then our example but it is our calling to follow in His steps.

(Illus... The word example is used of children who trace over the letters of the alphabet in order to learn how to write their letters correctly. When we follow Christ, our lives are tracing over the lines that He drew with His own hands and feet.

When the gospel takes root in our hearts it changes everything. When the love of Christ anchors itself into our heart the calling upon our lives is to walk so closely with Him that we put our feet in his footprints. When we open our mouths, His word is what we hear. When we are mistreated we respond with grace, love and truth. When injustice comes against us we entrust our souls to God.

When suffering comes through persecution or the mistreatment of unjust men and women we know that we are living in the same story as our Lord. We are walking where He walked.  This is our calling to follow in His steps.




[1] Poe, Edgar Allen The Cask of Amantillado (

[2] Pennington, Jonathan T.. The Sermon on the Mount and Human Flourishing: A Theological Commentary (p. 196). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

[3] Ibid, pg. 197.




Justin Wheeler

Pastor of Cornerstone Baptist Church in Wylie, TX.