When God Sends Mixed Messages

When someone tells me that I’m sending him a mixed message, it indicates one of two problems. Either I am sending a mixed message and my listener has picked up on it, or I am not sending a mixed message, and my listener has misunderstood what I’m trying to communicate.

In the former case, I need to stop and ask myself why I’m sending a mixed message. Am I confused? Have I lied? Have I changed my position on the subject?

In the latter case, I need to do a better job of communicating, or my listener needs to do a better job listening.

I hope that you will agree with me that God never sends mixed messages. He is never confused; He never lies; and most importantly, He never changes, at least concerning His inherent nature, His character, and fundamental moral issues (see Mal. 3:6; Heb. 13:8; Jas. 1:17). Thus if it appears that God is sending a mixed message, the problem is with our understanding. He is not sending any mixed messages. We need to listen better.

Let me give you an example of what I’m talking about.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, “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 an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also.” (Matt. 5:38-39). From these two verses an entire theology of pacifism has been crafted to which many Christians sincerely subscribe. Yet within the other 31,100 verses of the Bible, it seems that God might be sending a mixed message. For example, God said in His Law given through Moses:

If the thief is caught while breaking in and is struck so that he dies, there will be no bloodguiltiness on his account” (Ex. 22:2).

Clearly, God did not expect His people under the Old Covenant to “turn the other cheek” when thieves were breaking into their houses. Rather, if you were living under the Old Covenant, and you struck a thief who was breaking into your house, and that thief died from the injury you inflicted, you would not be guilty of any sin. You would not have to ask God for forgiveness. It was lawful in God’s eyes to defend your family and possessions by harming those who gave clear indication of their intention to steal from you.

So, again, it seems that God might be sending a mixed message. Something that was not morally wrong in God’s eyes for 1,300 years (from the giving of the Mosaic Law), suddenly, in the space of a few seconds (during Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount), became morally wrong. If you had killed a thief who was breaking into your house the morning before Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, you would not have incurred guilt. But if you had simply slapped a thief who was breaking into your house in the evening after Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, you would have sinned.

And if “turning the other cheek” means “don’t do anything that might hurt or offend someone who hurts or offends you,” then Jesus’ words seem to contradict major portions of the Law of Moses, in which God established a system of justice whereby those harmed could obtain justice. For example:

If a man steals an ox or a sheep and slaughters it or sells it, he shall pay five oxen for the ox and four sheep for the sheep (Ex. 22:1).

Obviously, a man who “turns the other cheek” would not be taking a thief to court to ultimately make that thief five oxen poorer and himself five oxen richer. In fact, a man who “turns the other cheek” would not be taking anyone to court, period.

All of this is to say that Jesus’ words about turning the other cheek, as they are so often interpreted, stand in opposition to the entire system of justice that God established for at least 1,300 years for Israel. So is God sending a mixed message? Of course not. The fault lies in our understanding of what He is communicating. So we need to listen better.

So how can we harmonize these two apparently contradictory messages from God?

A Common Answer

It is often claimed that Jesus was “raising the bar” on the moral behavior expected of His followers. What was OK for Jews was not OK for Christians. Jews could strike and even kill thieves breaking into their houses. Christians, however, should not even call the police or take to court those who steal from them. Rather, they should offer thieves more than they intend to steal, “turning the other cheek” (like the Catholic priest did for thief Jean Valjean in Les Miserables). By that interpretation, Jesus was of course undeniably changing the Law of Moses. What once was morally right in God’s eyes became morally wrong.

But is that what Jesus was really trying to communciate? Was He “raising the bar” and changing the Law of Moses? Was He invalidating the system of justice established by God 1,300 years earlier? (That question could be rightfully rephrased, “Was Jesus invalidating the system of justice that He Himself established 1,300 years earlier?”)

If He was, one would have to wonder why He, just a few seconds before His words about “turning the other cheek,” said, “Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill” (Matt. 5:17). If Jesus did not come to abolish the Mosaic Law, but then abolished a major moral part of the Mosaic Law, that is a contradiction. That creates another “mixed message” from God. So it can’t be true.

“But,” some counter, “clearly Jesus did change the Law of Moses during His Sermon on the Mount, because He directly quoted from the Mosaic Law’s stipulation of ‘an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth,’ and then He said, ‘But I say to you…'”

Is that, however, good listening to what God is trying to communicate? Was Jesus actually saying, “The Law of Moses said one thing, but I am about to say something that contradicts it, and I expect you to follow, not what the Law of Moses said, but what I am about to say?”

Some Provocative Questions

A few other questions will help answer those questions.

Under the Old Covenant, did God require the individual people of Israel to blind the eyes of anyone who blinded one of their eyes? Did He require them to knock out the tooth of anyone who knocked out one of their teeth? Did He require them to always get personal revenge for every offense?

And is that what Jesus was referring to when He said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for any eye, and a tooth for a tooth'”? Was He saying, “You know that up until now, God has always expected you to get just revenge, one eye for one eye, one tooth for one tooth”?

And when Jesus continued, saying, “But I say to you…,” was He communicating, “From this point onward, however, I’m not requiring you to get revenge as God required of you for the past 1,300 years. In fact, I’m reversing that law entirely. From now on, I’m requiring you to turn the other cheek”?

The answers to those questions are fairly obvious.

Of course, the Law of Moses certainly did not require Jews to blind the eyes and knock out the teeth of those who had done the same to them. Rather, the Law of Moses forbade any Jew from taking personal revenge:

You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the sons of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself; I am the Lord (Lev. 19:18).

So clearly, when Jesus quoted the Law’s words about “an eye for an eye” and then continued with, “But I say to you…”, He was not disparagingly correcting or direspectfully changing what His Father had said 1,300 years earlier. Nor was He abolishing Israel’s God-given system of justice. Rather, He was correcting the false teaching and example set by the scribes and Pharisees who used God’s words about “an eye for an eye” to justify taking personal revenge for petty offenses. Allow me to explain.

Judges Only, Please

Again, the Mosaic Law’s words regarding “an eye for an eye” were not requirements for Israelites to take personal revenge. Rather, they were instructions for judges whom God expected to dispense pure justice:

If men struggle with each other and strike a woman with child so that she gives birth prematurely, yet there is no injury, he shall surely be fined as the woman’s husband may demand of him, and he shall pay as the judges decide. But if there is any further injury, then you shall appoint as a penalty life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise (Ex. 21:22-25, emphasis added).

If a malicious witness rises up against a man to accuse him of wrongdoing, then both the men who have the dispute shall stand before the Lord, before the priests and the judges who will be in office in those days. The judges shall investigate thoroughly, and if the witness is a false witness and he has accused his brother falsely, then you shall do to him just as he had intended to do to his brother. Thus you shall purge the evil from among you. The rest will hear and be afraid, and will never again do such an evil thing among you. Thus you shall not show pity: life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot (Deut. 19:16-21).

The reason God established a court system in Israel was to promote justice and prevent personal vengeance—which is often unjust and perpetuates a cycle of revenge. The scribes and Pharisees, however, twisted what was applicable only to Israel’s judges. Jesus was correcting their teaching in His Sermon on the Mount, not His Father’s moral law! If Jesus was correcting His Father, He’s sending us another mixed message, because He claimed that whoever had seen Him had seen the Father (John 14:9), an obvious indication that Jesus would never contradict or correct His Father.

So What Was Jesus Saying?

So what was Jesus trying to communicate when He quoted the Law’s words about “an eye for an eye” and then told His followers to “turn the other cheek”?

Jesus was communicating that He did not want His followers to imitate the example of the scribes and Pharisees, concerning whom He said just seconds earlier, “For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:20). Jesus was communicating that He did not want His followers to take personal revenge for petty offenses, such as being slapped on the cheek. Rather, He wanted them to be long-suffering, merciful and gracious.

Jesus was not communicating that His followers should never defend themselves, their families, their property, or other defenseless people against those who mean them serious harm, or that they should never press charges against criminals.

Think about it: If I “turn the other cheek” and do nothing to stop a thief from stealing from me, and if I do not press charges against him in court, what good does that accomplish? Some may claim, “By showing him love, it will make him feel guilty and drive him to repentance.” Perhaps. But more likely, it will encourage him to continue stealing since he’s faced no consequences for his sin. By “turning the other cheek,” we reinforce sin and reward sinners.

And would what I have just described be what love would dictate? If I really love the one stealing from me, I will want to motivate him to stop stealing, since Scripture declares that no thief will inherit God’s kingdom (see 1 Cor. 6:9-10). If I truly love a thief, I will want him to face the consequences of earthly justice in hopes that it might help him escape eternal justice.

Moreover, if I do nothing that might prevent him from continuing to steal, am I “loving my neighbor as myself?” If a thief was caught stealing from my neighbor, would I appreciate that neighbor “turning the other cheek” by letting the thief go without pressing charges, thus enabling that thief to steal from me?

The answer to these questions are obvious. Under the Old Covenant, God commanded His people to love their neighbors as themselves, and He also established a system of justice so that thieves could be prosecuted and punished. God was not sending a mixed message. God wants us to love people and prosecute thieves. And by prosecuting thieves, we actually love them…and the people they might potentially harm had we not prosecuted them.

God’s Government Employees

Some take Jesus’ words, “Do not resist him who is evil,” to incredible extremes, claiming that no follower of Christ should serve as a lawmaker, judge, or policeman. If that is what Jesus meant, then God is certainly sending us a mixed message, because He inspired the apostle Paul to write that government authorities like police and judges are both “established by God,” and “servants of God, avengers who bring God’s wrath on those who practice evil” (see Rom. 13:1-6).

If such extremists would be consistent, they should not lock their doors lest they “resist him who is evil.” Nor should they keep their eye on their children, lest some evil person want to abduct and abuse them. They should oppose all laws, all police, all judges, as they all exist to “resist those who are evil.” They should protest at prisons, because those are places that “resist those who are evil.” And when they witness a brutal attack by a mugger on a pedestrian, they should do nothing, not even call the police, lest they “resist him who is evil.”

So what does Jesus expect of us? Let me paraphrase Matthew 5:38-41 so that it harmonizes with the rest of what God said:

You have heard from the teachers in your synagogues that God said, “An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.” God did say that, but your teachers, the scribes and Pharisees, have twisted the application of what God said, and are using those verses, written as instructions for judges, to justify taking personal revenge for petty offenses.

As I just told you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter heaven. So don’t follow their twisted version of what God has said. God wants you to not resist evil people when they commit petty offenses against you, such as slapping you on the cheek, suing you for your shirt, or forcing you to carry their gear for a mile. Shame those people by turning the other cheek, giving them your coat, or walking with them for two miles. Overcome evil with good. Be surprisingly gracious, just as God is.

But regarding serious offenses, such as when someone steals from you, or punches you and you lose your sight or a tooth, I did not come to abolish the pure and righteous Law that My Father established. He has given you in that Law a justice system whereby you can take people to court to obtain justice. In those cases, never take your own revenge. Go to court. And to those court judges I warn, do justice! An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth!

And as an addendum, if you are a Christian who has a dispute with another Christian who has grievously sinned against you (like defrauded you of money….not just some petty offense), I am not expecting you to just “turn the other cheek” as some say. You should seek justice and reconciliation. But don’t go to court before unbelievers. First, go to your brother privately. If he does not receive you, get one or two others. Enlist the help of fellow wise believers. And read 1 Corinthians 6:1-10.

I’ve shared just one example of how we sometimes take what appear to be “mixed messages” from God and make a mess of them, favoring just a few verses at the expense of others, and adopting an interpretation that does not harmonize with everything God has said about a certain subject. If I receive enough encouragement, next month I’ll share another popular mess that has been made, primarily by theologians who should know better, regarding another one of God’s “mixed messages.”

As always, I appreciate your feedback and read all of it. — David