Revenge – Is Vengeance a Sin?
Should Christians Retaliate?
The question of nonretaliation or nonviolence is often discussed in relation to Matthew 5:38-42. These verses serve to drive home the point that a Christian, rather than avenging himself upon a brother who has done him a personal wrong, should go to the opposite extreme.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 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. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you. (Matthew 5: 38-42).
In these verses Jesus was referring to the actions of evil or malicious persons. The principle of retaliation (lex talionis) is common in both Jewish and other ancient Near Eastern law codes (i.e., THE CODE OF HAMMURABI). The judicial penalty of “an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth” is stated in Exodus 21:24 as a means of ending feuds.
Never a License for Vengeance, but for Equal Justice
However, Jesus is clearly saying this method is not a license for vengeance. Many times an offended person will overreact to an offense or injury and retaliate in such a way as to return in like manner (i.e., an injury for an injury; an insult for an insult, etc.).
The Jews in those days frequently attempted to retaliate against their offenders through the arm of the law, especially in a nation dominated by a foreign power. Jesus’ point in verse 39 is that we (as individuals) should “resist not evil.” Evil is seen here not as a state, but rather as actions of the evil ones or the malicious ones. It represents the evil and sinful element in man which provokes him to an act of evil. Jesus shows in this verse how the individual believer should respond to personal injury. He is not discussing the government’s obligation to maintain law and order.
Neither do these verses, nor do any other verses in the Bible, mean that a man should not defend his family or his country, but rather that he should not attempt personal vengeance, to compensate for personal injury.
Jesus made these statements to remind those who would be His disciples not to expect divine justice from an unregenerate society. All justice ultimately is in the hand and the heart of God. As long as human governments prevail, justice will be limited by man’s finite abilities. The believer is to place his total confidence in the ultimate sovereignty of God over the affairs of his individual life. The life of the believer is to be lived with such a quality of spiritual veracity and justice that he needs no physical retaliation in order to defend or justify his position. There is no greater example of this truth than the life and death of our Savior, Himself.
Christians Should Beware of Vengeful Actions
The proper attitude of a Christian regarding vengeance is illustrated by Jesus when giving His sermon on the Mount:
“And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well” (Matthew 5:40).
This passage does not mean that a man should not defend his family (property) or his country, but rather that he should not attempt personal vengeance, even through the means of the law, to compensate for a personal injury … goes against the believer. (Liberty Bible Commentary, Vol. II, p. 25.) All justice ultimately is in the hand and heart of God.
“Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” (Romans 12:19; see also verses 20-21).
Self-vengeance has no place in the Christian life. We are told to make room for divine retribution to operate and therefore to “give place unto wrath” means to allow God to bring His vengeance to bear on those of the world, rather than taking revenge ourselves.
The Proper Christian Action
The proper attribute of Christians (Christ-like) is to “overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:21). We are not to give a place for wrath in our dealings with men, but rather give that place to God’s wrath… As believers we must resist the impulse to retaliate but rather we promote our sanctification by doing good to those who do evil to us. Therefore we exhibit our life of transformation before a watching world. (Liberty Bible Commentary, Vol. II, pp. 395-396.)
We must be careful about how we view material possessions. These earthly possessions are at the mercy of “moth and rust…and … thieves.” Even if temporal possessions escape the clutches of the marauder, they are still likely to become moth-eaten and rusty. In other words, they do not last.
“Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal: But lay up yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal: But lay up yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal: For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Matthew 6:19-21).