Saturday, January 1, 2011


This post is essentially the body of an email I wrote to a friend who asked about how to reconcile these verses:
  • "An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth." (Old Testament law, somewhere in the Pentateuch)
  • "You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.' But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you." (Jesus speaking, Matt. 5:38-42)
  • "Scripture cannot be broken" (Jesus speaking, John 10), "For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven." (my friend misattributed this to the apostle Paul, but this is Jesus speaking, Matt. 5:18-19)
My friend's question:
"So what does this mean? Does this means Scripture can be broken? Or is the New Testament self-contradictory?" (I would also add: Does the NT contradict the OT?)
My reply: First off, both of the NT verses you quoted are actually things that Jesus said. So if there is a contradiction, Jesus would have to be contradicting himself. In fact, when Jesus says, "until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished" (Matt. 5:18), he says this immediately after saying that his own relation to the Law is not that he is going to destroy it but to fulfill it (Matt. 5:17). From there, he goes on to make those statements, "You have heard X was said, but I tell you Y." (Matt. 5:21-22, 27-28, 31-32, etc) So if Jesus is contradicting himself here, he would have to be totally crazy and not credible in any way at all (in my opinion), because those "You heard X but I tell you Y" statements look like they are actually supposed to be the evidence for and the explanation of his comments on the Law and Prophets in general.

If you haven't already, now would be a good time to read all the way through Matt. 5 and if you want the fuller picture, all through Matt. 6-7 as well.

Even though it may look like Jesus is invalidating various Old Testament commands, he's actually expanding upon them. He is actually explaining their full significance, their true meaning, the spirit behind them. For instance, let's look at the one you specifically asked about: "You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also." (Matt. 5:38-39). Is Jesus contradicting or overruling the original commandment?

No. He is actually making a stronger command, in the same spirit as the original. This is easier to see if we look at some other examples:
  • v. 21-22:
    "You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother will be subject to judgment."
    Obviously Jesus is not telling them that murderers are no longer subject to judgment. He is not saying that murder is now ok. What he is doing is deepening the command. The original law was about an action (murder), but Jesus says, "It's not enough to refrain from killing someone. If you are really following God, you won't even get into an emotional state where you would want to kill anyone." The new life is about the spirit, the heart, the thought.

  • v. 27-28:
    “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart."
    Again, Jesus is clearly not saying it's okay to commit adultery. He's saying it's just as bad to be in the frame of mind where you want to commit adultery. You could be following the old rule against adultery, even while violating its real meaning every day. Again, the way of Jesus requires a change in your heart, not just in your actions.
So, what's going on in verses 38-39? The answer has to do with the real meaning of "Eye for an eye": This is actually a limit on the severity of revenge or punishment. In the surrounding culture when the Old Testament law was given, it was common to take a revenge that was vastly disproportionate to the original offense. For instance, your brother lost his eye to someone, so you go out and kill the person who caused your brother to lose his vision. The law here is meant to say: Your brother only lost an eye, so the punishment given to the one who hurt him can only be as severe as taking an eye from him. No worse. (This is pretty much like the Code of Hammurabi, I believe.)

We could express this in mathematical terms: the OT law requires punishment to no greater than the original offense or damage. It does not require the punishment to be equal to the original offense.

Jesus's reframing of the law, then, is telling them: Don't just refrain from going overboard in taking revenge. Instead, don't take revenge at all! Do good to your enemies instead of repaying them evil for evil. (Compare: v. 43-45, about loving your enemies.)

In conclusion, Jesus is not contradicting himself, and he is not contradicting the OT either. Instead, he is explaining the real meaning of the OT law. He is explaining what God's kingdom looks like. It's similar to John 4, where Jesus is talking to the Samaritan woman, and she asks about the correct place to worship. That's like asking which is the correct rulebook to follow. Jesus tells her, "The time is coming and is now here when the true worshipers will worship the Father in Spirit and in truth." That's like saying the right way to live is not about the rules, but about the Person behind the rules and the Spirit that the rules try to describe. To be clear: the Sermon on the Mount isn't meant as a new set of rules but as a portrait of life with God. What does it look like to actually fulfill the law, what does it look like to truly follow God, what does it look like to worship God in spirit and in truth?

1 comment:

ozan said...

I really like this commentary.