“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.” Matthew 5:39 (ESV)
This verse is of central importance in the Bible because it shows the heart of God and therefore of Jesus and the Holy Spirit. It was spoken by Jesus Christ Who stunningly exemplified His own teaching at His death on the cross. He performed many miracles during His life on earth but I find this to be one most amazing miracle, His love for His tormenters and killers at the cross. Just as He was about to give up His final breath, following hours of torture, He uttered these words:
“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Luke 23:34 (ESV)
Many persecuted Christians since, beginning with one of the first deacons of the Church, Stephen, have died with the same forgiving spirit towards their tormenters:
They went on stoning Stephen as he called on the Lord and said, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit!” 60 Then falling on his knees, he cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them!” Having said this, he fell asleep. Acts 7:59-60 (NASB Strong’s (Lockman))
The thing is, Jesus’ prayer for His tormenters was not said with fake intent. He utterly meant what He prayed and we can see God’s answer to Jesus’ prayer a few weeks later. Many of Jesus’ tormenters were fully forgiven by virtue of their sorrow over what they had done (repentance) and acceptance of the truth of Who Jesus was (faith). We will see these fellow believers in Heaven. See them in Acts 2 responding to the Apostle Peter’s preaching:
36 ‘Therefore let all the house of Israel know for certain that God has made Him both Lord and Christ—this Jesus whom you crucified. 37 Now when they heard this, they were pierced to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brethren, what shall we do?” 38 Peter said to them, “Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39 For the promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off, as many as the Lord our God will call to Himself.” 40 And with many other words he solemnly testified and kept on exhorting them, saying, “Be saved from this perverse generation!” 41 So then, those who had received his word were baptized; and that day there were added about three thousand souls. Acts 2:36-41 (NASB Strong’s (Lockman))
In order to help us understand our opening verse with reference to the topic at hand – the Crusades – we need to ask some questions. Firstly, whom is Jesus addressing in Matthew 5:39? I believe that He is addressing both large crowds who were following Him and His disciples. The reason for this is that at the end of the Beatitudes, of which Matthew 5:39 is a part, we find this:
28 And when Jesus finished these sayings, the crowds were astonished at his teaching, 29 for he was teaching them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes. Matthew 7:28-29 (ESV)
And in the following, it is clear that Jesus is addressing His disciples:
Matthew 5:1-2 (ESV) 1 Seeing the crowds, he went up on the mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him. 2 And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying …
So we can see who is being addressed but this doesn’t answer the question I am now posing: was Jesus addressing people as individuals responsible for themselves or was He addressing government bodies about matters to do with laws in reference to the state? I believe He was addressing individuals who wanted to follow Christ and Jesus was talking about their attitudes towards hostile others. Scripture cannot negate itself in its different parts. In order to understand the cohesiveness of the Bible, there cannot be contradictions of one section of Scripture with another. There do sometimes appear to be contradictions but this is where some awareness of context and history, at the very least, are required in order to begin to comprehend it. In the case of Matthew 5:39, we need to read and understand this, bearing other biblical passages in mind – passages that would negate a superficial understanding of what Jesus is saying in Matt 5:39.
In Matthew 5:39 Jesus is not making a pronouncement against the military or police force. Professor Wayne Grudem and Professor Thomas R. Schreiner make note of this in their commentary on Luke in the ESV SB. We see in other biblical references, such as when some converted soldiers ask John the Baptist what they should do now that they are Christians, John simply telling them to live with integrity as soldiers, not to necessarily quit the military. See Luke 3:12-14. So we see that being in the military is not “anti-Christian”. Likewise, those who disobey the rule of law, when that law does not rise in defiance against God’s higher law, is to be obeyed by the Christian and citizenry alike or face punishment for evil behaviour. Professors Grudem and Schreiner helpfully note biblical references for comparison with Matt 5:39 in Rom. 13:1–4 and 1 Pet. 2:13–14. The Romans and 1 Peter passage speak acceptingly of punishment by the state against those who commit crime. So here we see that there is no “Christian compassion” argument for those who would harm fellow members of a society. To make it clearer, here is the 1 Peter reference that I am saying should be read in conjunction with Matthew 5:39:
13 Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether to a king as the one in authority, 14 or to governors as sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and the praise of those who do right. 1 Peter 2:13-14 (NASB Strong’s (Lockman))
Therefore, although He is addressing a crowd, Jesus is addressing them as individuals responsible for their own personal conduct. The grievance an individual would have about being struck on the cheek is answered by Jesus’ injunction to turn the other cheek rather than retaliate. We can see what it means at a personal level. If someone has it in for you the individual, non-retaliation and forgiveness is how Jesus has taught you and me to respond. As we have seen from biblical examples that help us to shed light on Jesus’ call to turn the other cheek as a personal call, a superficial understanding of the verse will do us and God a disservice. So, I now move on with an illustration. This illustration is about real human beings, not the engineered concepts in the minds of many today. Men are usually physically stronger than women and contrary to today’s understanding of gender matters, for example the notion of all things masculine in men proving the narrative of “toxic masculinity”, I believe most well brought up men have a strong protective impulse as part of their masculine traits. With this in mind, I proceed with the illustration: A woman is walking down an alleyway and is attacked by a man. If a strong man happens along and sees the incident but keeps walking without intervening, what would we think of him? How would he justify his non-response to himself?…to others? What if his self-justification was that he was “turning the other cheek”? We would think him a low-life, callous, uncaring, indifferent to the needs of others and to a sense of justice.
Obviously Jesus’ words were not intended to be applied in this way. In like manner, with regard to questions of war, like Augustine and many in the Church who came before and after him, I believe in “just war”. I believe in a time for war and at other times, a time for peace. This can be seen in the Old Testament. God sometimes called His people to war and at other times, told them not to go to war. Sometimes they failed to respond to God’s command to go to war and at other times, they would not desist from war when told to do so. The Israelites were told to go to war as they were about to take their land for the first time as the newly formed Israel. Fear overtook them and they didn’t heed God’s call and encouragement to them. This turned out to be disastrous for them. On a subsequent occasion, they were told not to go to war, but they defied God and went. Disaster again. You can read the accounts in Deuteronomy, chapter 1.
If circumstances call for it, sometimes war is necessary. Such was sometimes the case with the Crusades. The First Crusade was called by Pope Urban 11 to defend Christians in Jerusalem who were being mercilessly attacked by Muslim jihadists. Those being attacked were defenceless and the sole reason for the attack was that they were Christians. The dilemma lay in whether Christians in the West had a right and even a duty to defend their fellow Christians in the East. A further dilemma was over the protection of the future spread of Christianity. By not participating in the defence of Eastern Christians, the evangelism of the world up until that time would be stopped in its tracks and Christianity would be forced out to make way for Islam. Was this an option for them and for future generations following them? Could the non-defence of Christians by their fellow-believers be seen as a callous act, an indifferent act and dare I say it, an unloving act? I believe so. Yet I still hear Christians routinely denouncing Crusaders for being hypocrites and not turning the other cheek. These Christians question neither themselves nor the history that led to the Crusades. Do you see how this is simply pandering to the spirit of the world? For Christians to denounce the Crusades is glib. It shows a lack of depth in an understanding of God and of the Scriptures. If we believe that the God of the Old Testament is the same God as the God of the New Testament, we cannot ignore biblical stories like those in Deuteronomy 1. But we could also look to the future. Jesus Himself will return to this earth in wrath, not in peace, reaching out and forgiveness. This future time will see Him come in judgement and the judgement will be final, affording no more opportunities to turn to God. See Revelation:
14 And the armies of heaven, arrayed in fine linen, white and pure, were following him on white horses. 15 From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron. He will tread the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty. Revelation 19:14-15 (ESV)
So let us be sure of the character of the God we say we believe in. Take a very careful look at Scripture … and at history and only then might we be able to discuss what is hypocrisy and what is a red mark against the historical Church. The word ‘hypocrite’ requires special mention. In the sense in which Jesus uses the word of the religious leaders of His day, He is not just saying that those religious leaders are not doing what they are demanding of others although this is part of its meaning. The fuller meaning of ‘hypocrisy’ as Jesus used the term had to do with the Jewish religious leaders of His day making a mockery of the meaning of the Old Testament laws with no regard to the reason and intention of God in giving those laws. Jesus accused these religious leaders of straining at gnats and swallowing camels. They were doing a total disservice to the meaning and spirit of OT law. You can read more in Matthew 23.
We are left with a call to :
forgive our enemies at a personal level
consider the amazing examples of Christ and of Christians who beautifully fulfilled, and some continue to fulfil, Jesus’ injunction to forgive
carefully read and understand Scripture, thereby better understanding God and biblical history
face a challenge : try reading the following book that seeks to present various aspects of Crusade history and to correct some serious misinformation
Seven Myths of the Crusades, Edited, with an Introduction and Epilogue, by Alfred J. Andrea and Andrew Holt. Hackett Publishing Company, Inc. Indianapolis/Cambridge