Turning the Other Cheek

When we read the words of Jesus to turn the other cheek, how can anyone who calls themselves a Christian justify learning or teaching martial arts?

This concept of turning the other cheek posses a very difficult dilemma for me.  I have been involved in the martial arts for several decades.  I love the martial arts. I love to teach the martial arts. I love how the martial arts help me stay in shape and keep me flexible. But, how can I be involved in the martial arts and still remain faithful to the teachings of scripture?

Some Christian martial artists attempt to resolve this issue by referring to 2 Cor. 11:21 where it seems that the apostle Paul also found it to be a dilemma to be struck in the face. In this second letter to the Corinthians, it appears that he admitted that while the Corinthians tolerated being struck in the face, he was “… too weak for that” – the implication being that he would have, in fact, retaliated.  Other martial artists have even said “Scripture says to turn the other cheek, but it doesn’t say what to do after that, sooooo! That is when you knock their lights out”.

Christian scholars have addressed the topic of “turning the other cheek” and presented the following:

“Jesus gives us a radical example so we will avoid retaliation, not so we will explore the limits of his example. … A backhanded blow to the right cheek did not imply shattered teeth (tooth for tooth was a separate statement); it was an insult, the severest public affront to a person’s dignity.” [1]

“To be slapped on the right cheek would be interpreted more as an insulting act of contempt than a violent physical attack (cf. Mat. 26:67).” [2]

Perhaps we should take a closer look at the context in which Jesus said “… But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also.” (Mat. 5:39)  Note that in looking at this passage we need to be careful not to be led or misled by false teachers nor lead or mislead by false teaching.  It has been said “a text taken out of context becomes a pretext”; i.e. twisting a statement in order to cloak divisive intentions (see Acts 23:15).

The words Jesus spoke concerning turning the other cheek are found in the Bible, nestled among the teachings called “The Sermon on the Mount” (Mat. 5:1 – 7:27).  The Sermon on the Mount describes the rewards and the responsibilities of being a Christian.  The central theme of the Sermon on the Mount is found in Mat. 5:48, “Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect.”  While the word perfect, as it is used here, refers to human kind, it does not refer to being entirely without fault or defect (flawless) — although God certainly is — it is more like “lacking in no essential detail (complete)”.

With three whole chapters being devoted to the aspects of being as much like God as is humanly possible (complete), how does one become complete (lacking in no essential detail) and what is the purpose?  2 Tim. 3:16 describes the method by which we become complete and verse 17 reveals the purpose for becoming complete: “16All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, 17that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.”  So then, the Scripture gradually transforms us so that we become equipped to do good.

The Sermon on the Mount can be divided into 10 major divisions.  The words of Jesus regarding, turning the other cheek (Mat. 5:39), are found in the third division emphasizing “True Righteousness” (Mat. 5:17 – 48).  In verse 20, Jesus clarified what He considered true righteousness to be: “For I say to you, that unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven. 

The question then arises: “Since turning the other cheek is in some way connected with true righteousness, what does righteous mean and how can I have righteousness that exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees?”  Simply put, righteous is being right in God’s sight.  The only way to be right in God’s sight is “… if you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes unto righteousness, and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation” (Rom. 10:9-10).

When we truly believe that Jesus was commissioned by God the Father to forfeit His life (the sinless substitute: 2 Cor. 5:21, Eph. 2:8-9, Rom. 6:23) for our life (the sinner: Rom. 3:23, Psa. 51:5, Isa. 59:2) — and because He Himself was not deserving of death (being sinless), God raised Him from the dead — then we are saved and our righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees because they refused to believe in Jesus even when they received reports that He was seen alive by many.

It is imperative to note that Jesus gave His life to satisfy God’s law which required law breakers to pay the penalty of death for their disobedience (sin).  This act of compassion on the part of Jesus allows God to remain unwavering in His position against sin, and be merciful at the same time. If each person were to pay the penalty (in this case, die) for breaking God’s law (sinning), they would die IN their sins and pay the penalty they justly deserved. On the other hand, if a sinless (righteous) substitute, were to pay the penalty on behalf of the law breaker, then the law would have been fulfilled (the penalty paid) and the law breaker would be released from paying the penalty.  Jesus fully understood the terrible agony He would suffer on our behalf (Mat. 26:39), but He knew He had been commissioned to be the unblemished (sinless) sacrificial Lamb of God.  Jesus also practiced what He preached concerning turning the other cheek : “…they began to spit in Jesus’ face and beat him with their fists. And some slapped him” (Mat. 26:67, cf. Lk. 22:64, Jn. 18:22, Jn. 19:3).

OK! – The inspired (God breathed) scriptures are telling me that I am to turn the other cheek (and I do want to be righteous in God’s sight); but Jesus also said: “Whoever therefore breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.” (Mat. 5:19)  So… I also need to be concerned with not breaking the least of these commandments and certainly not teach others (by words or by example) to break the commandments.

Is it possible that Paul considered breaking “…one of the least of these commandments” and by example teach “… men so”? (Mat. 5:19)  God forbid!  Perhaps we should search the scriptures for other references to this turn the other cheek concept, and compare how they are used lest we be considered “… untaught and unstable people [who] twist [scripture] to their own destruction, as they do also the rest of the Scripturesbeing led away with the error of the wicked” (2 Pet. 3:16-17).

So far we have concentrated exclusively on the New Testament, but the Old Testament also addresses the issue. In the book of Lamentations, written by the prophet Jeremiah, we find the earliest use of the concept regarding turning the other cheek (Lam. 3:30 NLT).  Jeremiah was lamenting (grieving) over the downfall of Jerusalem and not feeling so good about the fact that his submission to God’s mission was causing him suffering and hardship.  The details are set forth in the Book of Jeremiah, also written by Jeremiah.  We learn that Jeremiah had been commissioned by God to warn the Jewish leaders and the people to repent of their sins or be punished for their rebellion.  God made it clear to Jeremiah that He intended to send the Babylonians to administer that punishment (Jer. 20: 4).  The Jewish leaders and the people were angry that Jeremiah had pronounced doom on them and they struck Jeremiah and treated him harshly (Jer. 20:1-2, 26:8-9, 32:2, 37:15, 38:6).

Let’s sum it up. In the case of Jesus, as in the case of Jeremiah, they were both fulfilling a commission to which God had appointed them.  As God’s representatives, their duty was to conduct themselves in a manner that would bring honor to God and not discredit Him in any way.  In both cases they were sent to warn God’s people of the consequences for their disobedience to God, and they were not sent to carry out the punishment.  In both cases it was the people they were sent to warn who struck them.

As mentioned earlier, to think that Paul would knowingly break any commandment, and by example teach others to do the same, contradicts all that he stood for.  A closer look at what Paul said reveals his true dedication to the commission God had appointed him.  Paul was pointing out that the Corinthians were willing to “put up with” a false apostle who was misleading them and taking advantage of them (2 Cor. 11:20).  First, this false apostle was bringing them “into bondage” (under yoke of the Law of Moses – Acts 15:1).  Second, he devoured them (laid burdensome financial demands on them).  Third, he “takes from you”, meaning he exploited them by reducing their self-esteem so they would blindly do his bidding. Forth, this false apostle exalted himself by directing criticism at the true apostles and attempting to appear superior by his assertiveness.  Finally, he struck the Corinthians “on the face” asserting his implied authority and further reducing their dignity.

Paul’s statement in the next verse (2 Cor. 11:21), “To our shame I say that we were too weak for that!” is very revealing.  Paul was not there with the Corinthians, he was corresponding by letter.  He was not saying that “we were too weak for that” referring to being too weak to allow the false apostle strike him.  Paul was referring to the extreme intimidation tactics the false apostle used to substantiate his authority over the Corinthians.  Paul was saying, if that kind of aggressive conduct was what the Corinthians expected from true representatives of God, he just could not bring himself to use intimidation to fulfill God’s commission.

The examples set by Jesus, Jeremiah and Paul clearly directs us to conduct ourselves in a God- honoring manner.  They always conducted themselves in a way that was intended to direct the attention to God and not to themselves.  In each case they obviously were acting as ambassadors of God.  We too, are not to draw attention to ourselves and are to be ambassadors of Christ Jesus: “… we are to God the fragrance of Christ among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing” (2 Cor. 2:15).  When we have any involvement with others, we are to enter with the fragrance of Christ and exit with the fragrance of Christ lingering.  In this way we can be a sweet smelling savor to God.

Additionally, there are numerous examples we could consider from scripture that seem to justify the use of defensive measures: Abraham went to the defense of his nephew Lot (Gen. 14:8-16), King Saul went to the defense of the Gileadites (1 Sam. 11:1-11), King David went to the defense of his family and the wives and children of his army (1 Sam. 30:1-19) — just to name a few.  In each case they obviously were not acting as ambassadors of God.  It appears that the objective was the safety and welfare of the innocent and not for self-glorification.

How can I follow the example of Abraham, Saul, and David in employing only defensive measures to ensure the safety and welfare of the innocent, as well as the example of Jesus, Jeremiah and Paul in directing attention to God and not to myself while letting the fragrance of Christ permeate every involvement with others?

Another thing to note is that Abraham, Saul and David had weapons which they used for the safety and welfare of the innocent.  Those weapons were specifically designed to maim and kill. In our modern society it is illegal to carry a weapon without a permit.  My only weapon would be my defensive skills.  Those defensive skills are not specifically designed to maim and kill, but they do not lack that capability.  Using defensive skills in an offensive manner would not allow the fragrance of Christ permeate every involvement with others; and would instead, leave a stench.

On the other hand, Jesus, Jeremiah and Paul did not carry weapons.  Their primary defensive tactic was to avoid altercations.  My primary defensive tactic must be to avoid altercations and if unavoidable then to use defensive skills only.

In summary, let me use a personal example.  Several years ago, I and my students were invited to put on a demonstration at a church youth outreach event.  I had been teaching martial arts at that church for several years. There were approximately 300 teenagers in attendance from several communities.  At the end of the demonstration, the announcer (a friend of mine???) asked if “anyone would like to spar with the instructor” (me).  This invitation had not been discussed or agreed to before the demonstration.  Apparently the teens had a champion in the audience, whose name was called out in several areas of the stands.  Their champion stepped on to the mat, and I was seemingly obligated to honor the announcer’s challenge.  I had a choice to make: I could spar to humiliate their champion (assuming my skills were good enough); or I could spar to allow him look good in front of all his friends (again – assuming my skills were good enough).

My decision was to (hopefully) help him remain in the high esteem of his friends.  I believe God commended me for my choice because I spoke with the young man after the event.  He told me he was a second degree black belt and a highly rated tournament competitor.  He then asked why I didn’t take him out right away because he sensed I could have.  I told him I didn’t want to make him look bad in front of his friends.  A tear came to his eyes and he said: “I thought so.”  I believe God allowed the fragrance of Christ to permeate that involvement with that young man; and, by the way, one of the youth pastors later had an opportunity to present the gospel to him.

Did I turn the other cheek?  I presented both cheeks as a target, and when he delivered a punch or a kick, I avoided the blows by moving the intended target out of the way, or by putting a hand or arm in the way just enough to divert the attack and help him remain their champion – my humble effort to be obedient and do what was right in that situation.

1 Cor. 10:31-33: “Therefore, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. Give no offense, either to the Jews or to the Greeks or to the church of God, just as I also please all men in all things, not seeking my own profit, but the profit of many, that they may be saved.” 


[1]Keener, Craig S.: Matthew. Downers Grove, Ill. : InterVarsity Press, 1997 (The IVP New Testament Commentary Series 1), S. Mt 5:39

[2]Chouinard, Larry: Matthew. Joplin, Mo. : College Press, 1997 (The College Press NIV Commentary), S. Mt 5:39

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