by Frank Luke
FCF: Because we are fallen, we must learn to respond correctly to insults and injury.
Sermon Introduction: Revenge. Settling the score. Avenging the family honor. Avenging your besmirched honor. Every one of us struggles with these issues. Where do we draw the line between settling the score and righting the wrong? It’s obvious that if we are righting a wrong done to another that isn’t revenge, but what if it was done to us?
One of the passages that most non-Christians know, and love to use against Christians, is “turn the other cheek.” They believe that means Christians should be a doormat, letting any and everyone walk all over them. “Amazingly,” Christians have never taken the passage to mean that. It always astonishes me on some level that some non Christians believe they know more about the Christian life than Christians who are living it do. They really do believe that Christ’s teachings mean we should be complete pushovers. Let me rephrase, they desperately want to believe that Christ’s teachings should make us pushovers and lie to try to convince us that is so. They even lie to themselves.
To some level it has worked amazingly well. A nonaggression doctrine has really taken off the last couple of decades as the societal average of biblical knowledge has declined. Believing this doctrine weakens the church’s witness within society.
I know Christians who believe the full and complete measure of a man’s character can be determined by whether or not he is gentle of heart and define gentle to mean “never nasty.” That’s it. No other virtue matters. However, look at Scripture! Jesus, Paul, Peter, Elijah, Hosea, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Moses, Joshua, and almost every prophet got mean at one time or another. Elijah even taunted his foes by telling them to shout louder because their god was on the toilet. Is that respectful? Was it gentle when Amos told the women of Jerusalem, “gather around you fat cows of Bashan”? What about when St. Augustine told his debate opponent that God had reserved a special place in Hell for people who asked stupid theology questions? Not gentle. Read Jonathan Edwards’ sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Yeah, it’s mean, insulting, and about as far from gentle as one can be, but it sparked a revival that consumed the eastern seaboard. By focusing so completely on the love of Christ to the exclusion of Christ’s righteous judgment and anger at sin, the church has lost its witness in society.
At the same time, there must be balance. Clearly, God does not want us to enact revenge. We are warned against this several times. Throughout the history of the church, many have willingly died for their faith. Going into the arena, knowing they would not survive, yet comforted by their faith. Eleven of the Twelve Apostles died violently this way. The only exception is John, who died exiled to the rock quarry on Patmos. The number of Christians who died during Nero’s persecution and in the Colosseum are uncountable. It was not enough for the persecutors to simply kill the Christians. Many were tortured to death.
I recall an incident in my own life of talking to a Muslim. He claimed that Christianity had too many divisions to truth from Allah. “Islam has no divisions at all.” Um. I knew that wasn’t true, so I asked about the Suni, Suffi, and Shiates. Those are major divisions within Islam. He replied, “Those are minor differences. Look how little you know of us. We are all united in our statement that there is no God but Allah and Muhammed is his prophet.” Okay. Now he was playing a taqqiya, the Muslim doctrine that allows lying to the infidel if it advances the cause of Islam. As he was no longer being truthful, I knew the time for debate was over and done. I decided to end the conversation with a rhetorical hammer. “Ah, but you see, for all the different denominations we have, every Christian agrees on a single statement.”
“There is no God but the Lord, and Christ is His Son.”
I have never seen a rug-chewing meltdown like that!
Clearly, Christians have been on both ends. They have been warriors and soldiers, fighting evil wherever found and defending the innocents. They have also been martyrs for their faith. So, how do we interpret “Turn the other cheek” in light of insults and warfare? How do we respond when someone consistently returns evil for our good?
There are two passages to look at today, and we will see how both of them apply to Jesus’ message from the sermon on the mount to turn the other cheek. The first is Jesus’ interactions with the Pharisees in John 8 and the other is the stoning of Steven in Acts 7. Instead of reading them at the first, we will read them at each point of explanation.
Point 1. Insulted by the Pharisees (John 8:34-52)
34 Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is the slave of sin. 35 The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son does remain forever. 36 So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed. 37 I know that you are Abraham’s descendants; yet you seek to kill Me, because My word has no place in you. 38 I speak the things which I have seen with My Father; therefore you also do the things which you heard from your father.”
39 They answered and said to Him, “Abraham is our father.” Jesus *said to them, “If you are Abraham’s children, do the deeds of Abraham. 40 But as it is, you are seeking to kill Me, a man who has told you the truth, which I heard from God; this Abraham did not do. 41 You are doing the deeds of your father.” They said to Him, “We were not born of fornication; we have one Father: God.” 42 Jesus said to them, “If God were your Father, you would love Me, for I proceeded forth and have come from God, for I have not even come on My own initiative, but He sent Me. 43 Why do you not understand what I am saying? It is because you cannot hear My word. 44 You are of your father the devil, and you want to do the desires of your father. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth because there is no truth in him. Whenever he speaks a lie, he speaks from his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies. 45 But because I speak the truth, you do not believe Me. 46 Which one of you convicts Me of sin? If I speak truth, why do you not believe Me? 47 He who is of God hears the words of God; for this reason you do not hear them, because you are not of God.”
48 The Jews answered and said to Him, “Do we not say rightly that You are a Samaritan and have a demon?” 49 Jesus answered, “I do not have a demon; but I honor My Father, and you dishonor Me. 50 But I do not seek My glory; there is One who seeks and judges. 51 Truly, truly, I say to you, if anyone keeps My word he will never see death.” 52 The Jews said to Him, “Now we know that You have a demon. Abraham died, and the prophets also; and You say, ‘If anyone keeps My word, he will never taste of death.’ 53 Surely You are not greater than our father Abraham, who died? The prophets died too; whom do You make Yourself out to be?” 54 Jesus answered, “If I glorify Myself, My glory is nothing; it is My Father who glorifies Me, of whom you say, ‘He is our God’; 55 and you have not come to know Him, but I know Him; and if I say that I do not know Him, I will be a liar like you, but I do know Him and keep His word. 56 Your father Abraham rejoiced to see My day, and he saw it and was glad.” 57 So the Jews said to Him, “You are not yet fifty years old, and have You seen Abraham?” 58 Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was born, I am.” 59 Therefore they picked up stones to throw at Him, but Jesus hid Himself and went out of the temple.
Christ is our model here. He never responded with hatred, but He did at times respond with anger. Not responding with hatred may be the answer to our over arching question. When debating the Pharisees, He called them out on their hypocrisy, even insulting them as the discussions got more heated. However, He did not do so for His own sake. He did so to prevent them from leading others away.
When they called him illegitimate in John 8:41 (the Greek emphasizes the “we” as if they are saying “We were not born from immorality but someone in this debate who shall remain nameless sure was.” There were rumors even then that Jesus was illegitimate), He returns their insult, “You’re right; your father is the Devil.”
They then double down and ask if He is a Samaritan. A Samaritan was not just a resident and descendant of Samaria, but an idiom for, again, one born out of wedlock. They’ve also insulted His intellect here; “Well, Jesus, since you missed our thinly-veiled insult the first time, we’ll just be clear and open about it.”
With the Pharisees, He could reason and debate before the insults began. With the Sadducees, He called them white-washed tombs of dead men’s bones. Here, He tells the Pharisees that He is the Son of God. This is the same passage where they want to stone Him for blasphemy. They are threatening Him, but he responds only to the needed level.
When in His trials, He was silent against their insults and accusations, answering only their direct questions. The time for reasoned debate had passed. The time for insults was also gone. He was not going to change their minds or the minds of those watching without acting. His time had come.
When we are insulted and feel the need to take revenge, ask who benefits from your response. Will the hearer? Will your insults to him snap him out of his anger at you and help him see the light? Maybe his anger is displaced, and he needs to become aware of that.
We are not called to be doormats. That idea has cost the church much in its witness. Society expects us to go gently and meekly into that good night. I do not see that God does.
Our prayer as Christians is to be conformed to the image of Christ. He responded differently to different situations.
Point 2. The Stoning of Steven (Acts 7:51-60)
In Acts 7, when Stephen is on trial before the Sanhedrin, he says,
51 “You men who are stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears are always resisting the Holy Spirit; you are doing just as your fathers did. 52 Which one of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? They killed those who had previously announced the coming of the Righteous One, whose betrayers and murderers you have now become; 53 you who received the law as ordained by angels, and yet did not keep it.”
54 Now when they heard this, they were cut to the quick, and they began gnashing their teeth at him. 55 But being full of the Holy Spirit, he gazed intently into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God; 56 and he said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened up and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” 57 But they cried out with a loud voice, and covered their ears and rushed at him with one impulse. 58 When they had driven him out of the city, they began stoning him; and the witnesses laid aside their robes at the feet of a young man named Saul. 59 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.
Stephen does not defend himself. He defends the faith. Like the prophets of old, he confronts the leaders of Israel with God’s truth. When Nathan accused David of theft and adultery, he did so out loud with witnesses. Samuel did the same with Saul, telling him that the kingship would be taken from him because of disobedience. It was worse to disobey than it was good to make a sacrifice.
At this point, Stephen has already tied Christianity to the uniform message of God in the Old Testament. He now attacks those who have denied Jesus and His church. He calls them stiff-necked, an insult used by the prophets against many in Israel. It means “stubborn” or “obstinate,” and was originally used to describe oxen that bunched up their neck, refusing to take the yoke.
Stephen then goes a step further. He calls the uncircumcised in hearts and ears. He tells them that even though they have the outer marks of obedience to God’s covenant, they aren’t truly following it. Moses and the prophets also used this phrase against the people. Stephen always reveals his connection to Scripture.
When Stephen strikes at them with “you are just like your fathers, you always resist the Holy Spirit,” he ties them directly to the rebels of the past. They aren’t just resisting Stephen, they are resisting God. This is a grave situation.
Perhaps it is telling that Stephen does not call for repentance. They have already rejected Peter’s call to repentance. They have heard the Law as delivered by prophets and angels but rejected it. They have rejected the preaching of the Apostles. They have betrayed the Messiah by turning Him over to the Romans and caused His murder. Stephen stirs them up, knowing what is on the line.
We see a drastic contrast between Stephen and the Sanhedrin. While they gnash their teeth, are cut to their hearts, and resist the Spirit, Stephen is full of the Holy Spirit. He begins to pray but is answered directly by God before he utters a word. When he relates to the people what God has shown him, they drag him outside the city and stone him. They refuse to listen to him and stone him in mob justice. Nothing in their treatment was lawful. Torah explains exactly how the condemned is to be treated, and they do not do so. Stephen is not placed in the correct position for a stoning nor does only one accuser throw the first stone, both required by God’s law. The position and one stone were items of mercy. By being stretched out, the condemned was easier to hit in vital areas. The Torah required one, large stone first to be aimed at the head or chest to bring a quick, merciful death.
In his final words, Stephen repeats the words of Jesus from the cross, “Father forgive them, they know not what they do.” Stephen has been fully conformed to the image of Christ. According to early church historians, these words will also be said by Jesus’ brother James at his execution.
What is our goal when we speak to someone harshly and return insults? Are we trying to lead them to Christ or are we making them a punching bag? Only God knows when a person has passed their last chance at repentance.
A proper response means that we must be listening for the word of God at all times. We must pray and be ready to respond. In conversation, you can’t say, “Excuse me, I need to pray so I know how to respond.” You have to be ready at all times, prayed up, and conformed to His image.
What I can tell you is that neither Jesus nor Stephen responded with anger or insults to defend their own honor. Neither sought vengeance. Both prayed that God would forgive those who wronged them. That is where we, too, must conform to Christ. Those in danger must be warned of it.
The answer to the question is where is your heart? Are you doing it out of love or out of anger? The answer there tells how you should respond.
The altar is open for you to seek the face of God that you be ready to answer with the heart of God when challenged and insulted.
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