Last week, I did something I’ve never done before. I bought a firearm. There were many reasons why I did this, but ultimately, it was because of my desire to protect my family if the need arose.
In making this decision, I had to reckon with the words of Jesus in Matthew 5:38-41. For centuries, people have understood this passage to mean that it is wrong for Christians to use violence, even if they are defending themselves. If that’s what the test requires, brethren, that’s what we have to do. We can’t pretend like this passage doesn’t exist and do what we want anyway. If we defend ourselves, and it’s against the will of Jesus, we are no different from anyone else who chooses to defy His will.
However, before we reach that point, we have to decide whether that is, in fact, what the text is saying. Just a few verses up in Matthew 5, Jesus tells us to tear out our sinful eyes and cut off our sinful hands. We know that isn’t meant to be literal, and it may well be that turning the other cheek doesn’t mean what it appears to mean either. Let’s explore this issue as we consider self-defense and the Christian.
It’s appropriate to open this exploration by looking at some PROBLEMS WITH THE LITERAL READING. Why shouldn’t we understand this text as a general prohibition of self-defense? I see three issues with that reading, and the first of these is that it doesn’t correct the way that the Jews were misreading Scripture.
“An eye for an eye,” after all, is taken from the Law of Moses in Exodus 21:24, and in that context, it’s not about self-defense or even personal revenge at all. Instead, it’s a standard for determining the severity of judicial punishment. The Jews of Jesus’ time are taking this judicial standard and saying, “We have the right to dish out punishment ourselves.” If “Turn the other cheek” is about self-defense, it does not correct this misreading of Scripture. Instead, it is introducing an entirely new topic, and for Jesus, that would be extremely sloppy logic.
Second, this reading doesn’t fit with the rest of Jesus’ answer. In Matthew 5, He spells out three ways that His disciples are not to resist evil: by turning the other cheek, by not fighting lawsuits, and by going the second mile. Of these three, the second two are about state action. Famously, Roman soldiers had the right to compel peasants to carry their gear for one mile. Similarly, lawsuits are part of the machinery of government, and just as they do today, rich people in Jesus’ time commonly used them to oppress the poor. If the last two parts of Jesus’ answer concern the government in some way, that should at least leave us open to the possibility that turning the other cheek is about the government too.
Third, much of the rest of Jesus’ teaching presumes that people will defend themselves. Look, for instance, at Luke 11:21-22. This parable, of course, is not about self-defense, but it does reflect a cultural assumption that a strong man will fight to protect his home. Jesus does not describe him negatively for doing this, as opposed to the unrighteous steward and the unjust judge in other parables. Instead, He takes the strong man’s action for granted.
If the obvious reading is untenable, we need to look for A STRONGER READING instead. A passage that will get us going in the right direction is Lamentations 3:25-30. In context, of course, Jeremiah is mourning the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians and the people being led off into captivity. In that situation, his inspired advice is to submit to the Babylonians and wait for God to have mercy. That’s what v. 27 is talking about when it says that it’s good for a man to bear the yoke. As part of that, Jeremiah says, the Jews need to give their cheeks to those who are smiting them—the same idea that Jesus is promoting in Matthew 5.
In fact, I believe that in Matthew 5, Jesus is quoting Lamentations 3. He’s telling the Jews of His day to submit to an unjust Roman government in the same way that Jeremiah told the Jews of his day to submit to the unjust Babylonians. “Turn the other cheek” is about submitting to the government.
This reading resolves all of the problems we identified earlier. First, under this reading, Jesus is correcting the Jewish misunderstanding of Exodus 21. He’s saying, “Don’t take the law into your own hands. Honor the government, even when it is oppressive.” Second, “Turn the other cheek,” now fits thematically with “Let them have your coat,” and “Go the second mile.” All three now concern the disciple’s responsibilities to the government. Finally, it does not call into question the accepted practice of defending one’s family and property from criminals.
Additionally, this ties into one of the major themes of Jesus’ ministry. Among other reasons, God sent Jesus when He did as a last-ditch attempt to turn the Jews aside from a disastrous rebellion against Rome. Jesus warns them repeatedly to seek a heavenly, not an earthly, kingdom. If “Turn the other cheek,” is a warning against rebellion too, that fits perfectly.
This leaves us with THREE APPLICATIONS. First, just as the Jews were not allowed to take revenge into their own hands and justify it by misapplying the Law, we aren’t allowed to take revenge into our own hands either. Christians are supposed to be merciful and forgiving rather than vengeful. If we have opportunity, we are to do good even to those who have done evil to us. Punishing wrongdoing is God’s job and the government’s job, not ours.
Second, like God’s people in the first century, we are to submit to the government. We are to honor the laws and pay our taxes, even when we believe those laws are unjust and the taxes are oppressive. Certainly, our brethren 2000 years ago faced unjust laws and oppressive taxes to a degree we can hardly imagine, but they never took up arms against Roman tyranny.
Sometimes, I hear people arguing that in our country, the Constitution is the true government, so we have the right to rebel against a government that has gone beyond the bounds of the Constitution. Frankly, I think that’s sophistry. As Peter says in 1 Peter 2, we are not merely to honor the law. We are to honor the emperor. The godly obey the man in charge, even if he’s as crazy and evil as Nero. Of course, this is not true when the law directly contradicts the commandment of God. Then, our responsibility is to obey God rather than men.
Finally, we have to make up our own minds about gun ownership and self-defense. If Matthew 5 does not offer a clear command on the subject, we must be guided by our own conscience. There’s no reason to criticize the Christian who resolves that they can never take life, no matter what, nor is there reason to criticize the Christian who is willing to kill to protect the life of another. This is a decision that we must make thoughtfully and prayerfully, but if we do, whatever we choose will be to the glory of God.
Psalm 67 calls all the nations to praise God. It begins with an appeal to God to bless Israel so that all other nations can recognize His power. This will give them reason to praise Him, an idea that is repeated as a “chorus” throughout the psalm. The psalmist continues to observe that the nations should rejoice in God because He judges them righteously and guides them. The psalm concludes by celebrating the recent good harvest and observing that God’s blessing of His people gives the nations reason to fear Him.
Psalm 68 is a war song written by David, probably as the Israelites are about to leave Jerusalem to fight against enemies from Bashan (northeast of the Sea of Galilee). It opens by describing the totality of God’s victory over His enemies. He will crush the wicked, and the righteous will praise Him for it. He blesses the humble and provides rain for His people, but the rebellious will suffer drought.
From there, the focus shifts to the Israelite women (probably actual women in this assembly) who will rejoice in the good news and spoils of battle. David then contrasts the rebellious mountain of Bashan with Mount Zion, where God dwells and leads His people victoriously (note that 68:18 is quoted in Ephesians 4:8). He anticipates that God will completely defeat the rebels from Bashan.
After this, we see a recounting of the parade that is passing out of the gates of Jerusalem as the psalm is being sung: singers and musicians, then contingents from Benjamin, Judah, Zebulun, and Naphtali. The closing portion of the psalm appeals to God to punish the warmongers who have started this conflict, then calls all nations to praise Him.
Psalm 69 is another Davidic psalm, but is about a time of trouble instead. In it, David compares his troubles to a flood. His problem is the numerous people who hate him though he has done nothing wrong. As a result, he appeals to God to punish them instead.
From there, David laments all of his troubles and says that their source is his devotion to God. His enemies laugh at his godliness, but David continues to pray to God for help. He pleads to God to rescue him and points out all the bad treatment he has received. He asks God to return his tormentors’ malice on their own head. He promises that if God will do this, he will praise Him and call all the earth to do likewise.
Many portions of this psalm prophetically anticipate the suffering of Jesus and are applied to Him in the New Testament, particularly vs. 4, 9, 21, and 25.
Psalm 70 is similar in content to its predecessor. Once again, David is in trouble and wants God to deliver him and punish those who hate him. In comparison, David asks for God to give those who seek Him reason to rejoice. The psalm concludes with a plea for God to help him quickly.
There are some texts of Scripture that it seems nearly everyone knows. They’ve made the leap to become part of popular culture. One such text is the punch line to Philippians 4:11-13. Our society idolizes success, and Philippians 4:13 appears to promise success in everything because Jesus will help. I can remember my high school’s Fellowship of Christian Athletes putting Philippians 4:13 on T-shirts. My wife’s childbirth-class instructor suggested that women might want to repeat Philippians 4:13 when they were in labor, and so on.
All of that was very inspiring, no doubt, but is it really what the passage is about? Is Paul telling us that Jesus is the gateway to achieving our earthly goals, or is his point different? Here, as always, we need to tune out the cultural noise and ask what the Scriptures truly are saying. Let’s turn our attention, then, to some passages that will help us understand what it means to do all things through Christ.
When we are determining whether Philippians 4:13 applies to what we are doing, we first must EVALUATE OUR GOAL. Paul offers us a useful template for so doing in Colossians 3:1-2. Notice that the distinction here isn’t between setting our minds on righteous things instead of things that are sinful. It’s between setting our minds on things above instead of things that are on the earth. This is important because it tells us that there are goals that aren’t sinful that are still earthly. It’s OK for Christians to have goals like that, but they shouldn’t be where our minds are set.
This is the problem with applying Philippians 4:13 to scoring touchdowns or delivering children. Contextually, the passage isn’t about being able to do whatever we want to because Jesus gives us superpowers. It’s about doing what He wants us to do through the strength that He provides.
In context in Philippians 4, Paul is not being given the strength to succeed. He’s being given the strength to endure. Jesus is helping him to be content despite not even having enough money to eat so that he can go on spreading the gospel. That’s not something that most Americans would recognize as a success, but it was something that brought Paul closer to Christ.
So too for us. Again, it’s fine for Christians to pursue earthly achievements, but those things should not be the pursuit of our lives. Athletic success is fine, but not important. Career success is fine, but not important.
Instead, we ought to be concerned with the triumphs of the spirit. How am I doing in my battle against secret sin? Am I becoming more compassionate and merciful in my dealings with others? Am I, like Paul, patiently enduring suffering for the Lord’s sake? Those are the things that we should be looking to accomplish through the strength that Christ gives us. They never will shine on our resumes, but they are the kinds of things that get recorded in the book of life.
Second, we ought to PRAY FOR BOLDNESS. Consider the example of the apostles in Acts 4:29-31. Contextually, this is impressive. In the previous chapter, Peter and John had been arrested for healing a lame man—for doing good! They have been released from custody only after the leaders of their nation have warned them that if they continue to proclaim Jesus, they will suffer for it. What do they do? They come together with their friends and pray for boldness to continue preaching.
Here, I think we come to the difference between FCA-style leaning on Jesus and Bible-style leaning on Jesus. Usually, the pop-culture version of Philippians 4:13 is about ability. God, help me run faster. God, help me make better business decisions.
By contrast, the Bible version of Philippians 4:13 tends to be about commitment to Christ. We know what we should do. We have the physical and mental abilities to do it. However, there is some part of us that is afraid, so we need Christ’s help to do it.
This is obvious when it comes to serving the Lord—with evangelism, for instance. We know how fear can cripple us then, can keep us from doing what we know is right. However, the same is often true of our struggles against sin. If there is some sin that is constantly present in our lives, be it porn, alcoholism, or gossip, we physically could quit. However, we’re afraid to. We are comfortable in our sin, and we allow our minds to dwell on how unpleasant life would be without it.
In both of these cases, prayers for boldness are the answer. We don’t need stronger quadriceps or stronger brains. We need stronger hearts. We need the Lord’s help to do what we know we need to do.
Once we recognize that need, we should ask for help constantly. Prayer is not supposed to be a one-and-done thing. It is supposed to be a constant thing, especially in the times when we are tempted to be less than we should be. If we turn to Jesus, He will make us strong.
Finally, we must BE STRONG AND ACT. Look at the exhortation recorded in Ezra 10:2-4. Again, this is significant in context. Ezra has only just arrived in Jerusalem. Immediately, though, he has been confronted with a spiritual disaster of epic proportions. The Jews again have begun intermarrying with foreign women, even though that was one of those things that got them carried off into captivity in the first place! Worse still, the leaders of the people, those who were supposed to be leading them in righteousness, instead have been foremost in sin.
Somebody has to do something, and that somebody is Ezra. Nobody else has the same understanding of the Law that Ezra does. Nobody else is in the same elevated position. If he does not act, it may be that the Jews will be carried off into another captivity, never to return to the land.
The same holds true for us. There will be times in our lives when we are called on to take a stand. The stand could be in private, a defiant declaration that we are not going to practice that secret sin ever again. It could be in the context of our families, when somebody isn’t living right. It could be in our workplaces or even our churches.
However, wherever it takes place, the stand will be lonely. That’s what it means to take a stand. Rather than looking around sideways to see what everybody else is going to do, we do what we know we must and leave it to others to follow.
What Jesus wants us to know, though, is that when we are taking that stand, no matter how lonely it may feel, we never will be alone. He will be with us, and when we act with His strength, we will be certain to fully accomplish His will. Maybe the earthly results won’t be what we wanted, but in the spiritual realm, God will be glorified, and that’s what matters.
The Lord our God is great
And greatly to be praised
In Zion, joy of all the earth,
Both holy and upraised.
Mount Zion, in the north,
The city where He dwells,
Is guarded by the might of God
Within her citadels.
Although the kings came on,
Assembled in their might,
They saw her with astonishment
And took to panicked flight.
The Lord destroys His foes;
We saw as we had heard,
And He will keep His city safe,
Established by His word.
We think upon Your love
And in Your name, rejoice;
Your hand is filled with righteousness;
Let Judah lift her voice!
Let all her rivals come
And count her walls and towers,
Secure and certain evermore,
Because the Lord is ours.
Psalm 62 is another psalm written by David in a time of trouble. He expresses his determination to wait on the Lord because the Lord’s protection is certain. Vs. 1-2 make up a “prelude” that is repeated in vs. 5-6. Vs. 3-4 explain David’s problem: he is attacked by people who want to overthrow him as king. However, he continues to trust in God and encourages others to do the same. He observes that trusting in earthly power isn’t as beneficial, so seeking for power and riches is pointless. Power will always belong to God, and He will judge rightly.
Psalm 63 expresses David’s longing for God. He compares his desire for God’s presence to longing for water in the desert. He loves to praise God and will be satisfied with the opportunity to praise Him. He even thinks about God in his bed at night. He has this regard for God because God has always protected him. He is confident that God will destroy his enemies and exalt him.
Psalm 64 addresses the problem of wicked men plotting against David. He compares their hateful speech to sharpened swords and arrows being shot from ambush. He notes that these are people who have invested a lot of thought in how best to be wicked and betray him.
However, as they are shooting their “arrows” at David, God will shoot His arrows at them. They will be destroyed by their own evil words so that mankind will learn from their example and the righteous will rejoice.
Psalm 65 is a song of praise to God. He deserves this praise because He answers prayer, forgives sin, and allows the righteous to come near to Him. He answers His people with awesome deeds, the same kind of power that He revealed in establishing the mountains and stilling the sea. As a result, people praise Him across the earth, and even the dawn and the sunset rejoice in Him.
God reveals His goodness by sending rain. This causes his people’s crops to grow abundantly. Even the wilderness and the hills are green, and the verdant landscape praises Him.
Psalm 66 calls the earth to glorify God. Even His enemies have to give Him glory, and worldwide, people worship Him. This praise is justified because of God’s revelation of His power in parting the Red Sea and the Jordan River so His people could cross. To this day, He continues to protect His people from the nations around them. Where once He allowed them to be enslaved, now He has blessed them with abundance.
Because of this, the psalmist is resolved to praise Him and offer sacrifices to Him. He wants everyone to know that God has answered his prayers because of his righteousness and God’s steadfast love.