“…an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.” (Matthew 5:38)
Today’s message from the Sermon on the Mount concerns Jesus’ exposition of a very familiar saying. All of us have heard “An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth,” although we may not have been aware that it is part of the Sermon on the Mount. This saying is about justice. There is an ancient code of justice called “lex talionis” that actually predates the Mosaic Law, which simply states that punishment should fit the crime.
Many believe that Jesus refutes the Old Testament law concerning retributive justice and in effect “outlaws the law.” Jesus does no such thing because He would never oppose any law that He, the lawgiver, gave. Since Jesus is the Jehovah of the Old Testament, changing this law would deny the immutability of God and the goodness of God’s law. The Apostle Paul wrote, “Wherefore the law is holy, and the commandment holy, and just, and good” (Rom. 7:12). There is nothing wrong with the law although there may indeed be something wrong with our application of the law. The teaching in Matthew 5:38-42 is that we are not to take the law into our hands and seek personal revenge. “An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth” is the responsibility of the courts and not the individual.
Another principle that we may not think about is that God is bound by His law. In other words, God obeys His own law. God is the court, so to speak, and He applies this law when dealing with each of us. Our punishment must fit the crime. The crime is sin and the punishment for sin is the everlasting fires of hell. Since God is perfectly just, there must be a corresponding penalty for sin and God never applies grace to the law. The two are incompatible and this is easily demonstrated by our courts of law. We do not let murderers go free because we want to be gracious!
God’s law must be upheld. Therefore, God does not excuse sin because He is gracious. God’s grace is applied to the sinner through the sacrifice of Christ. Christ bore the punishment of our sins upon the cross, thereby upholding God’s law of retributive justice. God’s grace allows this payment for sin to be applied to us through faith (Eph. 2:8). The enormity of our crimes cannot be satisfied in any other way.
The Sermon on the Mount reinforces this theme over and over again in Matthew chapter 5. We cannot satisfy the demands of God’s law by any personal effort. Our hope is in Christ alone. Thank God for Jesus Christ!
Pastor V. Mark Smith