- In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus compares the Old Covenant approach with the New Covenant approach when he repeatedly contrasts the Old Testament “you have heard that it is said” with the New Testament “I tell you”.
- Anyone who has been to the place where Jesus preached his Sermon on the Mount is struck by the fact that it is not remotely a “mountain” as Matthew writes (Matthew 5:1), but rather a “plain” as Luke writes (Luke 6:17). This is because Matthew makes a connection between what Jesus says in his Sermon on the Mount with the law given to Moses when Israel made a covenant with God on Mount Sinai. What Moses’ law at Mount Sinai is for Israel, Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount is for the kingdom of God.
- It can sometimes be easy for Christians to read about all the wars in the Old Testament and take that as a pledge that we too should fight, but then they miss the fact that according to Hebrews we live in a “new covenant” that is “better” than the old one (Heb 8:6-8). We Christians are not to remain in the old covenant, but rather allow the Holy Spirit to spread the kingdom of God in the world so that it may be on earth as it is in heaven.
- Since the Old Testament Bible words Jesus contrasts in his Sermon on the Mount come from the Law of Moses, which was part of the Jewish legal system, Jesus’ commandments apply in the New Covenant just as the Law of Moses applied in the Old Covenant. Jesus’ call to refrain from retaliation and instead turn the other cheek is thus more than just a private religious stance, it is a general principle for all who belong to the Kingdom of God.
- IF Jesus had wanted us to use violence in self-defense against an unjust attack, he would have shown it in Gethsemane when he was attacked by “a mob with swords and stakes” even though he had done no harm. When one of his disciples drew his sword to defend Jesus against the attackers, Jesus told him: “Put your sword in its sheath! For everyone who draws a sword will be put to death by the sword. Or do you mean that I cannot ask my Father that he now sends to my service more than twelve legions of angels?” (Matt 26:47-53). So Jesus could well have defended himself, but refrained, partly because his death was part of God’s plan, but also to show us an example of how we should respond to those who attack us for our faith in Jesus.
- Another example of when the disciples wanted to resort to violence is found on the road to Jerusalem. When Jesus is not received by the Samaritans, James and John want to take revenge by destroying them with “fire from heaven” (Luke 9:53-55). Jesus rebukes his angry disciples and then moves on. Revenge and violence are simply not for us Christians who follow in Jesus’ footsteps.
- In the expression “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a hand for a hand, a foot for a foot” (Exodus 21:24), Jesus refers to the Law of Moses, where there was room for retribution for certain crimes. But this law existed primarily to limit the desire for vengeance so as not to retaliate too much.
- But the problem with “revenge” is that it destroys both the one who receives the punishment and the one who carries it out. By taking revenge, you ironically become the very thing you want to punish someone else for.
- I find it remarkable that Jesus says: “if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also to him”. Since the vast majority of people are right-handed, they are normally struck on the left cheek, so why does Jesus specifically mention the right?
- In Jesus’ time, it was not uncommon to show authority and superiority by hitting someone with the back of the hand. A Roman might strike a Jew in this way, a master his slave, a husband his wife, i.e. a reverse echo of Paul’s vision: ‘Here is not Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female. You are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28).
- But if the person being beaten then responds by turning up their left cheek, it shows that they refuse to accept the oppression they are subjected to and want to be treated as an equal. The batterer is then faced with a dilemma; either slap an equal on the left cheek or stop slapping and thus indirectly show that he or she no longer has any authority. By turning the other cheek, we show that violence cannot defeat those who no longer fear “those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul” (Matthew 10:28).
- By not fighting back, we disarm our opponent and stop the spiral of violence and revenge that has been going on since time immemorial. The only way to stop the violence is for someone to choose not to fight back and instead offer a path to reconciliation. This is exactly what Jesus did on the cross, thus winning a victory over the devil. When we understand that death cannot separate us from Christ and are no longer afraid to die (Rom 8:35-39), then the perpetrators of violence no longer have any power over us (John 14:30).
- What Jesus teaches in this part of the Sermon on the Mount I call “pacifism”.
- The word “pacifist” is composed of the two Latin words “pax” and “facere”, and means “peacemaker”. In the Latin translation of the Bible, the word appears in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are the peacemakers [pacifici], who shall be called children of God.” (Matthew 5:9). To be a Christian pacifist is more than just renouncing violence, it is also actively creating peace.
- Christian pacifism was the widely accepted Christian position for the first 300 years and has since been represented among revivalist groups such as Franciscans, Waldenses, Anabaptists, Quakers and the original Pentecostals.
- My definition of a Christian pacifist is: a person who follows in the footsteps of Jesus (1Pet 2:21) by refraining from retaliation (Rom 12:18-19) or repaying evil with evil (Rom 12:17) and instead defeats evil with good (Rom 12:21) by loving his enemy (Matt 5:44) and making peace (Matt 5:9) by offering reconciliation, bringing people together and working against unjust living conditions and power structures (Gal 3:26-29).
- By giving your opponent all your clothes, a situation will arise where you are standing naked next to a person who has all your clothes in his hand, which in a Middle Eastern culture would mean great shame for the person who caused you this. By stripping you naked you strip your opponent of his power over you. Anyone who sees this will regard your opponent as an unjust aggressor. So by not just being passive, you have exposed the unjust behaviour of the one who is trying to rape you and offered him an opportunity to realise his stupidity and give you back your clothes.
- A Roman soldier was allowed by Roman law to require a Jewish man to carry his equipment for one mile, but no more. Anyone could be forced to perform tasks for the Romans, as we see, for example, when Simon of Cyrene is forced to carry Jesus’ cross (Mark 15:21). By not only accepting the soldier’s demands but going a mile further, the Roman soldier’s unjust demands are exposed and he is forced to stop his aggression or else commit a Roman law-breaking act. The Roman soldier must now unexpectedly appeal to the Jewish man to carry his own equipment. Thus the pacifist has gained the initiative and offered the soldier a chance for reconciliation.