One of the maxims of the Old Testament, frequently misunderstood, is that of, “an eye for an eye.” The full quote, “but if there is harm, then you shall pay life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe (Exodus 21:23-24; ESV),” is given in relation to determining verdicts concerning damages in court trials before a judge. It is repeated by God more than once.
As a legal standard, God was telling His people to determine verdicts fairly and equitably. The punishment needed to be proportionate to the crime. If someone in a fight put out another man’s tooth, it would be unjust and extreme to put the offender to death. On the other hand, if someone killed another, it would be equally unjust to let them off with a light fine.
In His Sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught His disciples that an “eye for an eye,” had no place in personal dealings between people, saying, “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. (Matthew 5:38-39; ESV)” Jesus went on and expressly taught that in our personal interactions with others, we were to seek to love our enemies, praying for the ones who mistreated us (cf. Matthew 5:43-44).
Jesus, we should understand, had no actual quarrel with God’s Law, nor was He contradicting or refuting what God had said. We can deduce this from the fact that Jesus had already said, in His sermon, that the entirety of the Law needed to be obeyed (cf. Matthew 5:17). Rather, it seems as if some of the Jews had taken a legal maxim, meant to be used by judges in a court of law, and were seeking to use it to justify their personal vendettas. Obeying all of the law required doing so within the context of the intent of the law, and it was never God’s intent to justify an unloving, vengeful attitude. That which bound judges in delivering verdicts had no bearing on that which bound men in how they were to treat their neighbor.
That being said, the reverse was also true… judges were bound by the constraints of the law and were required to render impartial verdicts in law suits and criminal trials. This is partly why Jesus also taught in the very same portion of the selfsame sermon, “Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison. Truly, I say to you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny. (Matthew 5:25-26; ESV)”
The time for forgiveness and reconciliation was prior to the trial, when matters could still be settled amiably. By the time it got to the judge, law rather than mercy would rule the day.
Beyond the immediate application of one-on-one personal interactions between men, there is a broader spiritual lesson for us here.
God as the ultimate authority has the dual roles of being both our loving Creator and our ultimate Judge. As a loving Creator, God desires to be at peace with men, forgiving them their trespasses and teaching them to do better. God is not willing that any should perish, but He desires all men to come to repentance, that they might be saved (cf. 2 Peter 3:9). For this cause, He sent Christ into the world to be our Savior, so that men, through faith and obedience to the Gospel might have their sins washed away (cf. John 3:16, Mark 16:16, Acts 22:16, etc.). God earnestly pleads with us to make things right with Him.
For there is coming a day when God must act as a righteous Judge, and the verdicts He renders will be just, recompensing each man according to their deeds, having made the decree, “the wages of sin is death.” The loving mercy of God does not nullify the responsibility of God as righteous Judge. God, as Judge, will follow His Law. If we have not made our peace with God before the trial, then we will not escape without paying the price for our transgressions.
Which means, we need to heed the warning of Christ to make peace with our accuser. The time for salvation is now, not later. Make things right with God, through Christ, today; for we do not know that we will have tomorrow. Rest assured, by the time everything goes to trial it will be too late.
If you want to know more about how to be ready for that day, the church of Christ invites you to worship and study with us at 234 Chapel Drive, Gallipolis, Ohio. Likewise, if you have any questions or comments, we invite you to share them with us at chapelhillchurchofchrist.org
Jonathan McAnulty is minister of Chapel Hill Church of Christ.