What Does It Really Mean to “Turn the Other Cheek”?

Crosswalk.com Contributing Writer
What Does It Really Mean to “Turn the Other Cheek”?

Jesus, in what we call the Sermon on the Mount, told the gathered crowd, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also” (Matthew 5:38-39). The crowd likely understood what Jesus meant in the context of their times; but today, people interpret “turn the other cheek” in various ways.

An examination of history and Scripture gives us deeper understanding of the phrase “turn the other cheek.”

What Does This Verse Mean?

At first glance, Matthew 5:29 can be puzzling. Does this Scripture suggest that Jesus wants His followers to be doormats, allowing others to beat them up? Is this a call to compliant and weak surrender to aggressors? Pacifism? Even religious masochism? Though some Christians espouse these interpretations, it is not the meaning Jesus put forward in His sermon on a hill in Northern Israel.

In the simplest of terms, Jesus taught that when someone attacks our right to respect or dignity, we are not to defend our rights with revenge. We are not to retaliate. The believer’s defense of dignity rests in the Father’s hands. The apostle Paul said as much in Romans 12:18-19, where he encouraged Christ-followers to — as much as is possible — live in peace with others and not avenge themselves. “It is mine to avenge,” God says.

Understanding the history and context of this Scripture gives insight into the Lord’s statement to “turn the other cheek.”

What Is the Context of Matthew 5?

Matthew 5-7, known as “The Sermon on the Mount,” are powerful chapters for Christian living. Matthew 5 begins with Jesus teaching the Beatitudes, identifying those who are “blessed,” and continues with lessons for righteous disciples — short concepts about influence, obedience, murder, adultery, divorce, taking oaths, revenge, and love. These lessons continue in chapters 6 and 7 with Jesus teaching about giving, prayer, fasting, lasting treasures, worry, judging others, true and false prophets and disciples, and wise investments in the Kingdom.

Jesus promoted conformity to the spirit of the law, not mere obedience to the letter of the law, and some of His teaching likely rattled those who listened. For instance, He urged his followers to go the extra mile for those who abuse them, and to love and pray for their enemies (Matthew 5:41, 44).

The “crowds” in Matthew 5:1 were more than Jesus’ 12 disciples and closest followers. They likely included not only the curious but those who sought to condemn Jesus. But Matthew 7:28-29 say these same crowds were “amazed,” astonished by His teachings because He taught as one who had authority.

Even today, the issues Jesus addressed motivate God’s people to become righteous disciples. His teachings about holiness versus hypocrisy, genuine transformation versus superficial rule keeping, compassion and respect versus indifference or hateful bias, and justice in community verses vengeful retaliation speak to many of the problems Christians encounter in contemporary culture.

What Is the Historical Background of Matthew 5?

The “slap” in Matthew 5:39 could be regarded as contempt for a variety of personal rights, not simply the physical slap. It included insults and offenses against a person’s personal dignity. In Jesus’ day, Israel was Roman occupied territory. If the Jews, as subjects of Rome, did not comply with a Roman soldier’s requests for anything from a drink of water to handing over personal property, a swift backhand to the right cheek was common. But why would Jesus instruct His followers to offer the left cheek as well?

Paul T. Penley explains in “Turning the Other Cheek’: Jesus’ Peaceful Plan to Challenge Injustice,” “Roman soldiers tended to be right-handed. When they struck an equal with a fist, it came from the right and made contact with the left side of the face. When they struck an inferior person, they swung with the back of their right hand making contact with the right cheek. In a Mediterranean culture that made clear distinctions between classes, Roman soldiers backhanded their subjects to make a point. Jews were second-class.” The Roman slap was an insult to the Jews’ personal dignity.

In “On Turning the Other Cheek (and How It Doesn’t Mean What You Think It Means),” Corey Far explained that a slap on the right cheek meant the soldier backhanded the Jews, which was a far more demeaning slap. “It was degrading,” he said. “It was what you gave to an inferior or a slave.” To not break down emotionally and simply turn the other cheek meant that the soldier couldn’t slap you again on the right cheek, and, Farr said, “he can’t slap you with his left hand, because that is unclean for both of you.” The soldier’s only option was to slap with the palm of his hand, and “this was not the way to slap a slave. This was reserved for equals.” Thus, in giving the other cheek, the degraded person asserted his humanity in a brave countermove — a humble response, yet also an act of courage against an oppressive system.

The Jews were well acquainted with the concept of “giving cheek.” In Lamentations 3, Jeremiah wrote about the suffering of the Jews in the Babylonian captivity. In Lamentations 3:30, He explained that the Jewish captives should “offer his cheek to one who would strike him,” and be “filled with disgrace.” In other words, they should receive their insult — the shame or humiliation of a slap — bravely yet humbly, in a nonavenging manner, looking forward to their vindication from God.

What Biblical Characters Illustrate Turning the Other Cheek?

Turning the other cheek, at its root, involves not retaliating against insult or abuse, but rather, responding with humility and courage in the fear of God.

While Jesus strongly withstood any wickedness directed against others, especially against His Father, He did not resist with vengeance any evil directed toward Himself. When the officials in the Sanhedrin or the soldiers mocked and abused Him, Jesus did not retaliate. Instead, He either spoke truth or remained silent (John 18:19-24; John 19:3; Matthew 26:62-68). As Isaiah predicted of the Messiah, Jesus offered his back and cheeks to his abusers and “did not open his mouth” (Isaiah 50:653:7) — part of His submission to the Father’s will for our salvation. Jesus modeled a powerful example of humility and strength when insulted (1 Peter 2:20-23). 

Jesus was not the only biblical character who responded with humble courage when abused. The story of Joseph in the Old Testament also illustrates how a person can refuse to harbor a bitter spirit or allow revenge to control (Genesis 37-50). In great wisdom and understanding, Joseph acknowledged that the things he endured were “for good” in the providence of God (50:20). 

Also, though David was a man of war, he spared his enemy’s life repeatedly. He operated in the fear of God and left vengeance to the Lord when he told his men not to touch God’s anointed, King Saul (1 Samuel 26:9-11).

Is Turning the Other Cheek the Same as Pacifism?

At first glance, it can appear that Jesus, in saying “turn the other cheek,” was a pacifist. He also said, “Blessed are the meek” and “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:5, 43-44). It appears that the most aggressive thing Jesus ever did was to overturn a money changer’s table. He never advised Jews to kill any Romans. But Jesus was not advocating pacifism; and neither did He want Christians to be pushovers.

In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus instructed Peter to buy a sword, and as He sent His disciples out “like sheep among wolves,” He acknowledged that following Him would bring difficulty and persecution because He had not come to bring peace, “but a sword” (Matthew 10:5-36). The point was, claiming to be a Christian would become dangerous, and they needed to prepare.

Jesus understood that there are times to turn the other cheek over personal offenses, and times to pick up a weapon and fight. For instance, in Proverbs 24:11, wise Solomon said we should “rescue” those being led toward death and “hold back” those headed for slaughter, and that rescue and restraint might include physical force. Exodus 22:2 says it is acceptable to kill a thief in your house to protect your home and property.

Also, in a just war, soldiers and citizens need to fight to win, not allow the enemy to destroy life. Warfare is tragic, but pacifism can give evil free reign. Paul affirmed government’s right to use force to restrain and punish evil. It’s important to distinguish between the government and the church; Christians may fight in a war to defend their country, but must remember the government and church have distinct roles.

The Christian’s primary attitude should be to not return evil for evil. Also, Jesus was speaking to individuals in Matthew 5, not to governments. The believer’s disposition and responsibility should be humility and courage in the face of abuse. The government’s disposition and responsibility should be to retrain and punish evil. 

How Should We Respond When We Are Wronged?

Many Scriptures give insight into how we can respond when we are wronged.

1. Model Humility

We can remember the humility of Jesus. He took on the form of a servant and, though He was despised and reproached, He humbly surrendered to the Father’s will.

2. Be Wise and Pure

When “slapped” by rudeness or insults, Christians can speak the truth — name what is happening and, perhaps, how we feel about the wrong — but we’re not to retaliate. And we don’t have to respond verbally to every attack. Silence can speak volumes. If we do respond verbally, we need to be wise and keep our motives pure. In the same passage where Jesus said He was sending His disciples out as sheep among wolves, He told them to be as “shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.” Ask God for wisdom.

3. Focus on Jesus

Matthew 5:39 says not to resist an evil person, but that doesn’t mean we do nothing. We’re not to ignore evil, but rather to look to our Savior in the midst of the situation. When we focus on the evil person, we’re not looking for God’s perspective to maintain peace or acknowledging His control in the situation (Romans 12:17-19).

4. Try to Be a Peacemaker

When we are wronged, Jesus calls us to not act on our emotions in sinful ways or resort to pettiness — magnifying minor offenses — but rather to seek peace.

5. Love, Pray, and Look for a Way to Bless

Jesus encouraged His followers to go the extra mile in loving enemies and praying for persecutors (Matthew 5:44). Selfless love shows grace to people who do not deserve it, remembering that everyone sins. Prayer calms us so we can hear God’s direction. Determining to bless rather than curse those who mistreat us is one way to show the power of Christ in the world.

6. Stand Biblically against Wickedness

All this said, there are some cases where Christians need wise, biblical counsel and discernment, such as in regard to a brutal husband, a harassing boss, or other forms of serious abusive mistreatment. In these cases, turning the other cheek does not mean, “It’s OK to keep hurting me” — letting the offender off the hook. A proper response might mean setting boundaries, removing oneself from the situation, or learning how to best respond from a position of strength and dignity in Christ. 

The attitude of the heart is key, and Christians are wise when they humbly turn hurtful situations over to the One who is the Ultimate Judge.


Reenacting the Way, “Turning the Other Cheek’: Jesus’ Peaceful Plan to Challenge Injustice.”

First Fruits of Zion - “Turn the Other Cheek.”

Red Letter Christians - “On Turning the Other Cheek (and How It Doesn’t Man What You Think It Means)”

Desiring God - “Did Jesus Teach Pacifism?”

Photo credit: ©Getty Images/iprogressmam

Dawn Wilson 1200x1200Dawn Wilson has served in revival ministry and missions for more than 50 years. She and her husband Bob live in Southern California. They have two married sons and three granddaughters. Dawn works for Revive Our Hearts Ministries. She is the founder and director of Heart Choices Today, publishes Truth Talk with Dawn, and writes for Crosswalk.com.