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 would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. 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 (Matt 5:38–42; ESV).
In the first part of this essay, I surveyed Gary North’s reading of this passage and sketched a critique. Here, I want to provide an alternative reading grounded in the original context (to which North alluded but misconstrued), paying attention to the original intention of Matthew and (to the degree we can know it) the Holy Spirit, who inspired the gospel.
North was right to note that Matthew was written in the context of Roman domination of Israel, but he missed some truly important facts and considerations about that domination and about the nature of Matthew’s gospel. First, Matthew was writing an account for Jewish Christians of the gospel (i.e., good news about the Savior who came to deliver sinners from the coming eternal judgement). Jesus, he was announcing, is the Messiah whom believing Jews had been hoping for since the days of Abraham two millennia before. As North reads Matthew, however, it is fundamentally a legal, military, and (of course) economic text preparing Christians to establish a new national people and to shed their oppressors. In this context, it worth remembering that North was a committed Christian Reconstructionist who anticipated the coming collapse of civilization and a subsequent reconstructed Christian civilization and golden age as most of the world is converted and evil is marginalized, after which Christ returns to find a great deal of faith on the earth (Luke 18:8). The expected answer to Jesus’ question is “no,” but North’s eschatology led him in the opposite direction.
Though he was seminary trained and held a PhD in economics (UC, Riverside), he was no ivory tower fellow. Indeed, as Y2K approached, when some feared that computer code written prior to 2000 would not be able to process the changes created by the new century, North saw the event as the likely trigger for the coming collapse. Christianity Today‘s Daniel Silliman explains,
He was most well-known, though, for his warnings about Y2K. North was convinced that a computer programing shortcut—coding years with two digits instead of four—was going to lead to catastrophic crashes when the year 99 became the year 00 and the world’s digital infrastructure reset itself. He eagerly—even gleefully—heralded the collapse of civilization and coached Christians on how to stockpile food, gold, and guns.
North, of course, was wrong and, we may suppose, grateful that the United States is not a theocracy, and thus he was not executed as a false prophet (Deut 18:18–21)—the irony, of course, is rich because he himself did advocate stoning, as Sam Roberts observed in his obituary of North in the New York Times.
A Code for Messianic Pilgrims
Matthew chapter five begins with the Sermon on the Mount. It opens with beatitudes. The Jews were looking for an earthly, military Messiah, a David-figure to deliver them from the hated Roman oppressors. North is partly correct to say that Israel had disobeyed and had been punished for it. They had been exiled. They had been delivered by God’s sovereign grace into the promised land. God had entered into a once-for-all national covenant with them. That covenant was, Reformed theologians used to say, a kind of republication of the law and covenant that God gave to Adam. Though there have been difference of opinion as to the effect of the republication of that law and covenant (e.g., whether Israel might have retained the land by works and whether Israel served as a sort of Adam-like figure in the history of salvation and the promised land a sort of second garden), the Reformed orthodox were generally agreed that the republication of the law at Sinai served as a pedagogue, a harsh tutor, to teach the Israelites the greatness of their sin and misery and to drive them to turn to Christ (in, with, and under the types and shadows) for free salvation (Gal 3 [all]).
Judging from Matthew’s account, the Jews were expecting this-worldly results from their Messiah. Jesus did not meet their expectations and so they and the Romans crucified him. They wanted power now, but he offered blessedness (beatitude means blessedness, not subjective happiness) to the poor in spirit. Why? Because “theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 5:1). It is not those who conquer (or even achieve dominion) who are blessed. Rather, according to Jesus, it is they who “mourn, because they shall be comforted.” It is not the strong and powerful who are blessed, but “the meek, because they shall inherit the earth.” It is not the fat and happy, but those who “hunger and thirst for righteousness.” The fat are never satisfied, but those who seek after righteousness are. The merciful receive mercy. The pure in heart shall see God. Peacemakers (not conquerors) are sons of God. The kingdom of heaven belongs to the persecuted (e.g., those who follow Jesus). Those reviled and falsely accused for Jesus’ sake are blessed (Matt 5:2–12).
This is the charter of the Kingdom of God, which Christ had inaugurated, which he confirmed with his own blood at Golgotha. According to Matthew, Christ is the paradigm for the Kingdom into which Christians are made citizens. He did not exercise dominion over political enemies. Rather, he allowed them to abuse and murder him for our sake and he called us to “take up” our cross too.
Then Jesus told his disciples,
If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul? For the Son of Man is going to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay each person according to what he has done. Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom (Matt 16:24–28; ESV).
Pilate, that second rate, backwater bureaucrat—whose name we would have likely never known had he not encountered Jesus, since one did not get posted to Jerusalem for being an outstanding civil servant—was worried that Jesus was attempting to set up a competing regime. Jesus said his kingdom is not of this world:
So Pilate entered his headquarters again and called Jesus and said to him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus answered, “Do you say this of your own accord, or did others say it to you about me?” Pilate answered, “Am I a Jew? Your own nation and the chief priests have delivered you over to me. What have you done?” Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.” Then Pilate said to him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world—to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.” Pilate said to him, “What is truth?” (John 18:33–38a; ESV)
“My kingdom is not of this world.” This should be the death knell for theocracies and theonomies, but it never is. North’s reply was, in effect, “Not then, but it would be.” Jesus also said, “As it was in the days of Noah, so shall it be when the Son of Man returns,” but the postmillennial TheoRecons will not have it because there was no golden age before the flood. Thus, Jesus, they say, must have been speaking only of the destruction of Jerusalem. We should not wonder that TheoRecons have long played at the edges of “full preterism” (with some of them occasionally falling over the edge), which holds that Jesus returned in AD 70—a view that is heresy against the 7th article of ancient rule of faith (regula fidei) and the universal Christian confession: “Whence he shall come to judge the living and the dead” (Inde venturus est ad iudicandum vivos et mortuos).
North was big on “I have not come to abolish the Law or the Prophets” (amen!), but there is relatively little in his account of, “but to fulfill them” (Matt 5:17). Of course, no TheoRecon writer can accept the historic (going back to the Fathers) distinction between the permanent, abiding moral/natural law and the temporary judicial and ceremonial laws.
In Jesus’ Kingdom, it is not enough to refrain from physical murder. Because our murderous sins have been freely forgiven, we are obligated to refrain even from murders of the heart (Matt 5:22–26). Physical sexual sin (e.g., adultery) is forbidden, but more than that: adultery proceeds from the heart (Matt 5:27–30). Moses allowed polygamy because of the hardness of their hearts (Matt 19:8) but Jesus, by contrast, restored the creational (not Mosaic) pattern of monogamy (Matt 5:31–32). Like their Dispensational cousins (hence the frequent traffic from Sun Valley, CA to Tyler, TX, as it were), the TheoRecons have never really understood or accepted that the Mosaic epoch of redemptive history was intentionally temporary. The Dispensationalists want to restore it during a future earthly, literal millennium and the TheoRecons are looking forward to its reinstitution during a figurative millennial golden age before Christ returns.
So too with oaths. The Jewish lawyers and scholars had devised ways around God’s intention, so Jesus cut to the heart: “do not take an oath at all.” The Anabaptists misunderstood this. Jesus was using hyperbole to illustrate the foolishness of the Pharisees. Paul himself swore an oath to the Galatians (1:20), “Before God!”
The Old Covenant system authorized (e.g., Ex 21:24) literally an “eye for an eye.” In Jesus’ Kingdom, however, there is none of that. We are to turn the other cheek (Matt 5:38). The Kingdom of God (manifested chiefly in the visible church) is an outpost of a heavenly or eschatological (final state) kingdom. We are not here to settle scores and “get ours.” As citizens of a heavenly city (Phil 3:20), we represent another system altogether and we have different ethic. We have, Calvin wrote, a “twofold” citizenship. We are simultaneously citizens of this sacred, heavenly kingdom and of earthly, secular kingdoms with responsibilities to them. Thus, contra the pacifists, when the magistrate calls, we serve in just wars to achieve just earthly ends. When someone slaps us, for the sake of the Kingdom of God, we turn the other cheek (Matt 5:39). If an adversary sues us for our coat, we give them our tunic also. This is not bribery. This is the ethic that comes from an eschatological kingdom. We want justice in this life but there is more to life than this life in the fallen world. The attitude is: if my stuff means that much to you, take it.
North takes the scenario, “If anyone forces you to go one mile” in connection with the civil suit mentioned, but that is almost certainly wrong. A civil suit does not ordinarily force one to walk a mile, but oppressive Roman soldiers did. They commandeered Jewish civilians to carry their stuff. Those who have served in the military, especially in the infantry, know that soldiers and Marines carry a lot of stuff on their backs when they go into combat, sometimes as much as 80 lbs. Thus, it is no surprise to learn that Roman soldiers marching past would put Jewish civilians to work carrying gear. Jesus says: if that happens, walk with them for two miles. In that moment, you represent my heavenly kingdom, for which I am about to give my life. You can certainly give two miles of humiliation. In the same way, we give to those who beg and we lend to those who ask.1
The contrast between an eschatological reading of Matthew, accounting for its place in the history of redemption, and North’s TheoRecon reading of Matthew produces some very clear differences. Matthew 5 is a charter of pilgrims. This is not a frequent theme in TheoRecon literature. Dominion in this life, before Christ returns, is incompatible with a pilgrim eschatology and ethic. Indeed, they cannot refute it from Scripture properly read—though the TheoRecons have been voluminous writers, the quality of their biblical exegesis and biblical theology, whether that of Bahnsen, Rushdoony, North, DeMar, or Chilton, is woeful.
Jesus and his disciple Matthew were, as Luther taught us, theologians of the cross. According to Christ, dominion over sin and Satan is to be accomplished through humiliation and death. The life to which he called Matthew (the tax collector) was to follow suit. Nowhere do the Scriptures, interpreted as the Apostles did, promise dominion and glory before the return of Christ.
If this dialogue sounds vaguely familiar it is because this is the argument that Jesus had with the Pharisees. They wanted power and glory in this life. Jesus refused to satisfy their demand. That is not the nature of the Kingdom that he inaugurated. Glory comes at consummation and not a moment before. Until then, we are pilgrims. We even call the theology that we do, “pilgrim theology” (theologia viatorum). The theology of the blessed (theologia beatorum) is for those who are with the Lord. We have an inaugurated eschatology, not an over-realized eschatology. Before Christ returns is not the time for heaven on earth. Heaven has broken in, as it were, in Christ. The church is an outpost of his Kingdom. Her ministers are his ambassadors. They bring the twofold message of the Kingdom: repent, the Kingdom of God is at hand (Mark 1:15), and come to Christ all you who are weary and He will give you rest (Matt 11:28).
Before Christ returns is not the time for earthly conquest of Christ’s enemies. He is putting them all under his feet, as it were (1 Cor 15:25). When he is done, he will return, but not a moment before. He is ruling in the midst of his enemies (Ps 110:2). Now, in the interregnum, he is busy saving his elect, plucking them out of Sodom before the fire falls from heaven. All we who have been plucked and made citizens and heirs ought to give thanks that he has not instituted judgement and reprisals. That day is surely coming. The Apocalypse does not picture Christ with a sword in his mouth for nothing, but now, before his glorious bodily return to judge the living and the dead, is not that time. Ours is the time of marching not one mile but two.
©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.
1. We ought to be harmless as doves and wise as serpents (Matt 10:16). It is one thing to give to one who is truly needy and another to feed the narcotic habit of the addict. Before you contribute to the habit of an addict, contact your local authorities to see how they think you can best help the “homeless.” Our local liaison with the police department urges us not to support the narcotic addictions among the homeless, since those addictions are increasingly fatal to hundreds of thousands of people.
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