Among the many biblical passages that provoke controversial questions about Christian non-violence and cooperation with the sword-bearing state, perhaps none presses the issue as sharply as Matt 5:38–42. When Jesus prescribes turning the other cheek, giving up the garment, and going the second mile as an alternative to the lex talionis—the eye-for-eye principle of strict, proportionate justice—he addresses a key element of justice not only in the Mosaic law (Exod 21:22–25; Lev 24:18–21; Deut 19:21) but also in the Noahic covenant of Gen 9 and in countless human legal systems, such as the Law of Hammurabi and the Roman Law.2 Applied literally and universally, Jesus’ words leave little room for Christian participation in the coercive enforcement of justice in civil society. Yet NT texts such as Rom 13:1–7 continue to speak positively about civil government and its justice and about Christian submission under its regime. Interpreting Matt 5:38–42 in light of the broader biblical witness, therefore, has proven to be an arduous and controversial endeavor.
In recent years a number of eloquent writers have defended a rather literal reading of Matt 5:38–42 and surrounding verses. This often entails a non-violent or pacifist position that avoids cooperation with the civil state, though ordinarily its advocates seek not to withdraw from society but to develop a radical, peaceful, counter-intuitive strategy for effecting social transformation.3 Into the present day, however, most Christian theologians have held that Christians may be faithful to the Sermon on the Mount even while circumspectly supporting the coercive enforcement of justice. They often defend this view through highlighting the hyperbolic character of verses such as 5:38–42, which Jesus did not necessarily intend to be performed literally.4
My sympathies are clearly with the latter line of thought, though I defend the compatibility of the Sermon on the Mount with the continuing legitimacy of civil authority in a distinctive way. In this article I argue both for a strong—even literal—reading of Matt 5:38–42 and for the ongoing legitimate role for the sword-bearing state and Christian cooperation with it. Recognizing the lex talionis as the principle of strict retributive justice is crucial for my argument. Jesus truly decreed that the coercive application of the lex talionis was not to be pursued. Yet in doing so he did not intend to undermine civil authority or to prohibit Christians from supporting the work of the state. In Matt 5:38–42, Jesus announces that the pursuit of retributive justice has no place in the kingdom of heaven. Though the kingdom of heaven is ultimately an eschatological realm, to be fully revealed in the age to come, in Matthew Jesus points to the church as the particular community that embodies the kingdom’s way of life here and now. Many recent scholars argue against interpretations that limit the application of the Sermon on the Mount to the church.5 Christians, indeed, are citizens of the kingdom in all that they do and should always seek opportunities to express the Sermon’s ethic of forgiveness and reconciliation. Nevertheless, I argue that in Matt 5:38–42 Jesus defines the unique character of his church and does not redefine (or eliminate) the state or his disciples’ basic responsibilities toward it. The state is to continue its work of coercively enforcing justice in civil society, with Christians’ support. But the church is a community that shuns the application of the lex talionis. In anticipation of the eschatological kingdom, the church is not only a non-violent community but also, even more importantly, a community defined by an ethic of forgiveness and mercy rather than by retributive justice.
I also claim that a two-kingdoms doctrine as commonly expressed in historic Reformed theology provides an effective theological framework for appreciating these exegetical conclusions. Though most people today do not readily associate Reformed Christianity with a two-kingdoms doctrine, the early Reformed tradition did develop two-kingdoms categories similar to, though also distinct from, the Lutheran tradition. I argue that this Reformed two-kingdoms doctrine better captures Jesus’ teaching in Matt 5:38–42 than does either a Lutheran two-kingdoms doctrine or the neo-Calvinist paradigm popular in contemporary Reformed thought.
In order to make these arguments, I first consider some of the important context for Matt 5:38–42 earlier in the Gospel of Matthew. Then I address Jesus’ pronouncement that he has come to fulfill the law, and I interpret Matt 5:38–42 in this light. Finally I discuss how a Reformed two-kingdoms doctrine serves to put this biblical text in proper and useful theological setting.
1. The Coming of Jesus and the Kingdom of Heaven: The Context of Matthew 5:38–42
Interpreting and applying Matt 5:38–42 responsibly requires reading it in context. These five verses appear in the context of the Sermon on the Mount, which in turn appears in the context of Matthew’s larger story about Jesus’ ministry and the coming of the kingdom of heaven. In this section I first identify some important contextual considerations in the chapters leading up to the Sermon in Matt 5–7 and then I highlight some significant contextual factors in the Sermon itself. In these texts the evangelist focuses our attention upon the coming of Jesus and the kingdom of heaven. Matthew 5:38–42 must be read against the background of Jesus’ spectacular appearance and the establishment of his eschatological kingdom.
A very significant event prior to the Sermon on the Mount is recorded in Matt 4:12–17: Jesus hears that John the Baptist has been thrown into prison; he goes as a light shining in dark lands; and he begins to preach that the kingdom of heaven is near. The significance of John’s imprisonment can hardly be overestimated. Matthew 3 portrays John as an OT prophet, yet John himself tells us that one greater than he is about to come (3:11–12). Matthew immediately identifies Jesus, through the account of his baptism, as the one who is greater than John (3:13–17). The sequence in Matt 4 is striking: John, the OT prophet, is arrested and his ministry ends, and only at that point does Jesus begin his own ministry. Something very important has ended and something even more important has begun. John is the last of the OT prophets (11:13–14), and when he passes from the scene an eschatologically new era commences.
Matthew’s opening description of the coming of the kingdom after John’s arrest is nothing short of spectacular. The end of the old era has yielded to something radically new. Jesus first goes to a land of darkness described as “Galilee of the Gentiles” (4:13–16). Though in accord with OT prophecy (Isa 9:1–2), this begins the Matthean theme of the Gentile inclusion that far surpassed anyone’s expectations. Then after calling his first disciples, Jesus goes around not only teaching but also casting out demons and healing multitudes who were sick (4:23–24). Israel’s prophets had performed miracles, but the sheer variety and intensity of Jesus’ work is something the people had never seen. The end of Matt 4 tells us that huge crowds from all over flocked to Jesus.
Highlighting the spectacular newness of the coming of the kingdom is Matthew’s peculiar nomenclature: Jesus proclaimed the kingdom of heaven. I do not believe that there is any good reason to think that the kingdom of heaven in Matthew refers to something other than the “kingdom of God” in the other Synoptics, but the difference in terminology still demands explanation. The prominence of the themes of “heaven” and “earth” in his gospel suggest that Matthew was not avoiding use of the divine name out of deference to his Jewish readers but that he had crucial theological purposes in mind.6 Suffice it to say here that this kingdom that Jesus proclaims is not an earthly kingdom. His kingdom is an eschatological realm that breaks into this earth from another world. Readers’ impression of the heavenly nature of this kingdom is intensified when Jesus goes up on a mountain to begin his Sermon (5:1). In the OT, the mountain was the place where heaven met earth, the place where God dwelt.7
This background concerning Jesus’ appearance and the announcement of the kingdom of heaven in Matt 3–4 prepares us to recognize that the Sermon on the Mount is all about Jesus and his kingdom.8 Jesus ascends the mountain to teach as a second and much greater Moses (5:1) and at the end of the Sermon the crowds are astounded, not so much at the content of the teaching as at Jesus himself and the unique authority with which he taught (7:28–29). The opening and closing Beatitudes proclaim people blessed precisely because the kingdom of heaven is theirs (5:3, 10), and throughout the Sermon Jesus repeatedly points to the kingdom as what is sought and experienced in following the Sermon’s exhortations (5:19–20; 6:10, 33; 7:21). The Sermon on the Mount does not legislate a universal human ethic. It sets forth a way of life for those who know and acknowledge Jesus and to whom the kingdom belongs. It is noteworthy that though the crowds are evidently within earshot (hence 7:28–29), he actually teaches only his disciples (5:2), those who have already followed him (see 4:18–22), and it is striking that those who receive these commands already possess the kingdom of heaven (5:3, 10) and are already the salt of the earth and light of the world (5:13–14). Jesus has arrived, the kingdom of heaven has drawn near, and disciples graciously plucked by Jesus from the midst of fallen humanity have been told that they are blessed before receiving a single command.
2. The Lex Talionis and the Fulfillment of the Law
With our eyes focused upon the eschatologically charged coming of Jesus and his kingdom we now turn to the interpretation of Matt 5:38–42 itself. This text falls in the midst of Jesus’ words about the law and the prophets (5:17–20) followed by the so-called antitheses (5:21–48). As befits the character of his coming, Jesus does not give commands that clarify the Mosaic law. He gives commands that are, in many cases, new and different from the Mosaic law, yet which simultaneously reflect the eschatological fulfillment of the law accomplished through his coming. In 5:38–42 Jesus abolishes the lex talionis from his kingdom because his own work satisfies its just demands once and for all.
Crucial for understanding 5:38–42 is Jesus’ programmatic statement in 5:17 that introduces his subsequent commands: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” A common reading of this verse in my own Reformed tradition is that Jesus is about to clarify the Mosaic law in response to Pharisaical corruption of Moses.9 While this reading has the virtue of guarding against denigration of the Mosaic law, it is not an adequate interpretation of Jesus’ words. A general difficulty with this reading is that it fails to reckon with the radical, eschatological newness of the coming of Jesus and his kingdom so emphasized in the preceding texts in Matthew considered above. Matthew 5:17 itself reinforces this sense of eschatological newness. The first use of the key Synoptic phrase, “I have come,” for example, hints at Jesus’ heavenly origin (and hence his authority to say what he is saying) and indicates that Jesus is about to reveal a central purpose of his ministry.10 In addition, Jesus’ denial that he has come to abolish the law or the prophets indirectly offers further evidence of the spectacular newness of the kingdom of heaven: apparently what has transpired thus far in Matthew’s story has given some people the impression that Jesus has come to abolish something in the OT.
More concretely, the way in which Jesus’ commands unfold in 5:21–48 is ultimately incompatible with reading them as clarification of the Mosaic law over against corrupt Jewish interpretation. For one thing, all six of Jesus’ “You have heard” statements either quote or paraphrase the actual teaching of the Mosaic law, not contemporary Jewish interpretation of it.11 Jesus presents his exhortations in comparison with those of the Mosaic law itself. Second, however much the first two antitheses are amenable to the view that Jesus is purifying the interpretation of the law, the last four antitheses cannot reasonably bear such a reading. Jesus does show the inward demands of the prohibition of murder and adultery in the first two antitheses, but whereas the Mosaic law prescribed procedures for divorce, oath-taking, just retaliation, and destruction of enemies, Jesus proscribes these very actions. To say, for example, that what Moses really intended by writing “keep your oaths” was that the Israelites should not swear at all strains the imagination. Jesus’ statement about divorce in 5:31–32, furthermore, cannot be an elaboration of the OT law since it presumes that the death penalty is not applied against adulterers.
A better reading of 5:17 is that Jesus fulfills the law and the prophets by accomplishing all of the things that the OT prophesied. To this point in his gospel Matthew has already labored to show that Jesus’ actions constitute a turning of the ages and bring to pass what the OT foretold and anticipated (1:22–23; 2:5–6, 15, 17, 23; 3:3, 15; 4:4, 6–7, 10, 14–16), and this theme continues in all sorts of ways subsequent to the Sermon on the Mount.12 Jesus’ words in 5:18 confirm an historical and eschatological interpretation of “fulfill” in 5:17 by saying “until heaven and earth disappear” and “until everything is accomplished” (or “comes to pass”). Jesus therefore indicates in 5:17 that he is neither abolishing the Hebrew Scriptures nor simply purifying them from corrupt interpretation. By his deeds and here also by his words, Jesus brings the law and the prophets to historical and eschatological fulfillment.13
Thus, as the kingdom of heaven is something strikingly new, so the Sermon on the Mount, the ethic of this kingdom, proclaims a way of life that is eschatologically new. It is different from the way of life under Moses, though in a manner that accomplishes rather than thwarts God’s larger purposes in giving the law and the prophets. How, exactly, does this shape our interpretation of Jesus’ handling of the lex talionis in 5:38–42?
First, we must consider how Jesus’ commands in 5:38–42 are different from the lex talionis as imposed in the Mosaic law. The “eye for an eye” formula appears three times in the Mosaic law and is evidently a cornerstone of its jurisprudence. It was likely not intended to be applied in an overtly literal way, but represented a key legal principle: justice was to be strict, proportionate, and retributive.14 As such it encapsulated, on a personal level, the central Mosaic theme that Israel would be justly rewarded in the land if they faithfully obeyed God’s law and would be justly (severely) punished if they disobeyed.15 However exactly one interprets Jesus’ command not to resist the evil-doer (5:39–42)—to which I return below—Jesus is certainly not instructing his disciples in the most effective way to impose strict retributive justice against those who harm them. Jesus is legislating a principle different from the principle of proportionate justice.
In fact, matters of justice and OT judicial life are raised by all six of the Mosaic commands that Jesus mentions in Matt 5:21–48. The one who murders will be liable to judgment (5:21). A legal bill or certificate is required for divorce (5:31). A central purpose of OT oaths was to secure truth-telling in court (5:33; see Exod 22:11; Num 5:19–21). And the command to hate one’s enemy—through cherem warfare against the Gentile occupants of the Holy Land—was the ultimate expression of God’s retributive justice against the abomination of sin. Jesus even seems to ratchet up the forensic tension as Matt 5 moves along. Oaths ensured that trustworthy evidence would be presented to the court; the lex talionis provided a basic standard of justice for rendering the verdict; and cherem warfare was the implementation of strict, merciless justice on a macro level.
Jesus’ commands stand in sharp contrast. His kingdom is marked by the absence of judgment.16 Its citizens’ way of life is so pure that there is no possible ground for anyone to bring judgment against them, and when others are in conflict with them they seek reconciliation with the wrongdoers, not judgment against them. The Mosaic law occasionally touched upon internal matters of the heart, but its primary focus was on external matters. Its purpose was to establish and regulate a theocracy, a geopolitical entity in which justice was maintained among its inhabitants. But this radically new kingdom that Jesus has announced is of a very different nature. It does not break into history as a theocratic, geopolitical realm and thus focus on external conduct and seek the strict enforcement of justice.
The disciples of Jesus certainly do not murder or commit adultery, but they also shun sinful anger and lustful glances, matters which are beyond the jurisdiction of any civil justice system. Instead of seeking legal termination of troublesome marriages, they seek to maintain marital relationships. Instead of going to court to establish truth by oath, they tell the truth at all times. Instead of implementing just retaliation against the tortfeasor, they themselves bear the proportionate payback. Instead of wiping out the foreigner from the holy land, their love extends indiscriminately. The Mosaic law, it should be noted, required theocratic Israel to pursue precise and proportionate justice in external matters through oath-taking, the lex talionis, and cherem warfare. These commands were bound up with the nature and purpose of the old covenant community. But Jesus announces that in his kingdom there is perfect and holistic righteousness and no pursuit of precise and proportionate justice in external matters through these various means. Jesus’ kingdom is of a radically new and different nature and these things have no place within it.
My interpretation of 5:17, however, indicates that Jesus’ commands in 5:38–42 not only are different from the Mosaic lex talionis but also reflect the eschatological fulfillment (rather than simple abrogation) of it. How is this the case? It is significant to note that Jesus does not tell his disciples to ignore and walk away from the person who harms them, but to take a second slap, to give up a second garment, to go a second mile. The lex talionis prescribes a second action that is proportionate to the first action: the person who causes the injury is to receive the same injury in return. Jesus’ words in 5:38–42 preserve the twofold action and the proportionality of the lex talionis. The difference is that he exhorts his disciples to bear the second, retaliatory action themselves.17 A proportionate penalty is still borne, but the wronged party rather than the wrongdoer endures it. This reflects the larger Matthean theme that Jesus’ disciples must imitate Jesus in his suffering at the hands of sinners. Jesus has already told them that suffering is their lot in the present age (5:10–12), and later he explains that as he will go to the cross so also they must bear the cross (16:24–26). Matthew’s gospel alludes to, though does not explain in detail, the substitutionary atonement, Jesus’ dying on behalf of his people to secure the forgiveness of their sins (see 20:28; 26:28).18 Human beings, as it were, slapped God in the face through their sin, and God responded with the lex talionis—not by justly slapping them back but by bearing that retaliatory slap himself through Jesus. God’s saving action in Jesus satisfies retributive talionic justice once and for all. By bearing in their own bodies the just penalty due to wrongdoers in order to bring healing and reconciliation, Jesus’ disciples are privileged to show forth God’s gracious action toward them in Christ. In this way Jesus’ words in Matt 5 reflect not the abolition but the fulfillment of the lex talionis. The way of life of Jesus’ kingdom is, quite literally, marked by refusal to seek just retribution against the wrong-doer and willingly suffering for the sake of Christ.
3. The Kingdom of Heaven and the Establishment of the Church
The conclusion to the previous section highlights an important point: Matt 5:38–42—and the entire Sermon on the Mount—is to be put into practice here and now. The Sermon’s ethic is indeed heavenly and not of this age. It prescribes an ethic of holistic perfection (5:48), and the hungering and thirsting of Jesus’ disciples for righteousness awaits future satiation (5:6). Yet Jesus emphasizes that his commands should be obeyed in the present (5:19–20; 7:20–21, 24–27), and the very way in which he articulates his kingdom’s ethic presumes the presence of the sin and conflict of this world. The Sermon, therefore, is a heavenly ethic that the citizens of the kingdom seek to implement in the present evil age. How, specifically, are the non-violent and non-retributive commands of Matt 5:38–42 to be carried out here and now? The answer to this question depends significantly upon Matthew’s teaching about the church.
Understanding the application of 5:38–42 first requires recognition that the Sermon is not an individual code of conduct but the way of life of a kingdom, of a community. The Mosaic law was not an individual code of conduct but could be practiced only in the context of the community of theocratic Israel, and thus too the commands of Jesus can be carried out only in the context of participation in this new and unique heavenly kingdom. The Sermon on the Mount itself does not identify how and where this heavenly kingdom is to find communal expression in the present age. We must again read 5:38–42 in the broader context of Matthew’s gospel and the whole NT.
Matthew’s gospel makes clear, first of all, that social-political life in general is not the communal context in which the kingdom of heaven is made manifest and experienced, and thus where its non-violent and non-retributive ethic is to be implemented. Jesus commends the great faith of a centurion (8:10), yet gives not the slightest hint that this faith is incompatible with his inherently violent occupation. Other places in the NT are similar (see Acts 10:1–11:18). Later in Matthew the Pharisees give Jesus perfect opportunity to strip Caesar of his legitimate civil authority. But though Jesus strips Caesar of divine pretensions, he implicitly acknowledges his authority to levy taxes (enforcement of which requires the threat of coercion) (22:15–22). Elsewhere the NT affirms this authority much more explicitly (see Rom 13:1–7). The whole of Matthew’s gospel, therefore, indicates that Jesus’ prohibition of the lex talionis in his kingdom does not mean the end of ordinary civil order or the end of his disciples’ participation in the coercive enforcement of civil justice.
In hindsight Matt 5 itself seems perfectly compatible with such a conclusion when we remember that the lex talionis was the foundational principle of justice not only in the Mosaic covenant but also in the Noahic covenant of Gen 9: “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man.” The lex talionis is a good, righteous, and upright judicial standard. Matthew 5 proclaims only that the coming of the kingdom brings the Mosaic covenant to a consummated conclusion. The coming of the kingdom means the end of the Mosaic theocracy and the Mosaic lex talionis. Jesus says nothing about his kingdom altering the civil order that the Noahic covenant promised to all living creatures (Gen 9:9–10, 12, 15–17) as an “everlasting” covenant to be in effect “as long as the earth endures” (Gen 8:22; 9:16).19 It seems that the eschatological ethic of the heavenly kingdom must be practiced by Jesus’ disciples here and now even while coercive civil justice continues uninterrupted and his disciples have some share in it.
If Matt 5:38–42 leaves the civil judicial order intact then where is its non-retributive ethic particularly to be manifest? The Gospel of Matthew points us to the church as the community where the life and power of the kingdom of heaven were to be experienced by Jesus’ disciples. Matthew does not equate the kingdom and the church, but he points to the church as the manifestation of the kingdom in the present age.20 Matthew 16:18–19 and 18:15–20 are key, the only places in the four Gospels where the word á¼?κκλησÎ¯α appears. The fact that the first of these passages immediately follows Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Messiah, a crucial turning-point in Matthew’s gospel, leaves little doubt that this introduction to the church is of no small importance to the evangelist’s larger message.
These passages set forth several aspects of the relationship between the church and kingdom. First, in bestowing “the keys of the kingdom of heaven” upon the church through Peter (16:18–19), Jesus houses the power and authority of his kingdom in the church’s ministry. If the use of these keys refers to the work of a steward, then the administration of the affairs of the heavenly kingdom is executed from earth in the church.21
Second, the pregnant words, “whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven” (my translation),22 disclose both the nature of the keys (and hence the church’s ministry) and the relationship between the kingdom in heaven and the church on earth. Given contemporary Jewish use of the expression, “binding and loosing” likely refers to authoritative teaching.23 Hence the exercise of the keys seems to be what is sometimes called “the ministry of the word.” At least in the context of 18:18, furthermore, “binding and loosing” pertains especially to admission to and expulsion from the kingdom. Hence the exercise of the keys in the church through faithful and authoritative teaching and response to it determines kingdom membership. More precisely, the use of the future perfect (“shall have been bound/loosed”) indicates that what is first true in heaven becomes manifest on earth. The judgment once and for all rendered in heaven on account of Jesus’ vicarious death becomes effective on earth through the exercise of the church’s keys.
Third, this sense that the church is the community where the kingdom of heaven touches and manifests itself on earth is confirmed in 18:19–20: “I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything you ask for, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them.” In the humble assembly of the church on earth the power of God in heaven is revealed. No wonder that this is the case: the king of the kingdom of heaven, Jesus himself, promises to be among this assembly.
Fourth, the nature of the disciplinary procedure outlined in 18:15–17 powerfully confirms all of this. I argued above that the so-called antitheses of Matt 5 describe a kingdom whose way of life is marked not by seeking justice when sin and conflict arise but by seeking reconciliation and restoration. Matthew 18:15–17 describes exactly this way of life put into practice in the church. The emergence of sin and conflict provokes not retributive justice but three attempts at reconciliation (and the surrounding pericopes, 18:10–14 and 18:21–35, reinforce the centrality of mercy and forgiveness in Jesus’ kingdom).24 The only weapons ever wielded are the keys—the word of God—and never a sword. Even when “excommunication” becomes necessary in the extreme case, it does not take the form of punishment or retaliation but of recognizing what has already been decreed in heaven, namely, that a person is simply not a citizen of the kingdom. Additionally, the instruction to “treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector” indicates that how Jesus’ disciples will conduct themselves in relation to others in the church will be different from how they deal with others outside the church.
In light of these things we may conclude that though Matt 5:38–42 does not strip civil authority of its legitimacy or prohibit Jesus’ disciples from either submitting to it (e.g., through paying taxes) or supporting its work (e.g., through military service), this text does demand a rather literal implementation of its commands. The retributive justice expressed in the lex talionis has no place in Jesus’ kingdom. The church, the present manifestation of the life and power of the kingdom of heaven, should be characterized by the reconciliatory and forgiving—rather than violent and retaliatory—ethic of the Sermon on the Mount. The “church” here in Matt 16 and 18 focuses not upon the people of God scattered in the world through the week but to the institutional and formal gathering of those people, particularly in worship and discipline. This ecclesial community is uniquely to embody the non-retaliatory ethic of the kingdom of heaven.
This interpretation resonates with the rest of the NT. Acts and the epistles tell us a great deal about the formation and character of the church, but 1 Cor 5 and 2 Cor 2 deserve special note. These chapters concretely describe the early church’s implementation of the disciplinary procedure set forth in Matt 18, which itself reflects 5:38–42. The goal of what Paul commends is reconciliation and forgiveness rather than retaliatory justice (1 Cor 5:5; 2 Cor 2:6–11). The instrument of discipline is only the word, not the sword (1 Cor 5:3–5). And the whole process presumes a distinction between the world and the church and between the Christian’s relationships with those in the church and with those in the world (1 Cor 5:9–11). Here is a later NT example, then, of how the ethic of the kingdom of heaven is to be manifest uniquely in the church here and now.
4. Matthew 5:38–42 and the Two Kingdoms
In the previous sections I have argued that Jesus set forth a non-violent and non-retaliatory ethic not designed to overturn the pursuit of civil justice but intended to shape the way of life of his church, the manifestation of the kingdom of heaven in the present age. The question remains how best to communicate this exegetical claim theologically. I suggest that a two-kingdoms doctrine, as developed in historic Reformed theology, provides very helpful theological categories for articulating my conclusions from Matt 5:38–42. Furthermore, my interpretation of Matt 5:38–42, if sound, provides important biblical foundation for this doctrine.
Speaking of a Reformed two-kingdoms doctrine may seem odd to many readers, for at least two reasons. On the one hand, the two-kingdoms doctrine is often taken as a distinctively Lutheran idea.25 On the other hand, the dominant paradigm in many Reformed circles in recent years has been various versions of a neo-Calvinist or transformationist vision, which tends to emphasize the universal extension of the kingdom of God in conjunction with God’s present redeeming of all things in Christ.26 I have argued in detail elsewhere that there is in fact a Reformed doctrine of the two kingdoms that is similar to, though also distinct from, the Lutheran two-kingdoms doctrine.27 Here I will simply summarize that Reformed doctrine and then suggest why this paradigm better captures Jesus’ teaching in Matt 5:38–42 than does either the Lutheran two-kingdoms or contemporary Reformed neo-Calvinist paradigms.
The traditional Reformed doctrine of the two kingdoms teaches that God rules all things in his Son, yet does so in two fundamentally different ways. As the creator and sustainer, through his Son as the eternal Logos, he rules over all human beings in the civil kingdom. This civil kingdom consists of a range of non-ecclesiastical cultural endeavors and institutions, among which the state has particular prominence. As redeemer, through his Son as the incarnate God-Man, God rules the other kingdom, sometimes referred to as the spiritual kingdom. This spiritual kingdom is essentially heavenly and eschatological, but has broken into history and is now expressed institutionally in the church. Both kingdoms are good, God-ordained, and regulated by divine law, and believers participate in both kingdoms during the present age. From this distinction between two kingdoms by which God rules the world, Reformed orthodox theology derived a series of distinctions between political and ecclesiastical authority. One key distinction was that while the state wields power through the physical sword, the church exercises authority only through the non-coercive ministry of word and sacrament.
One way in which this historic Reformed two-kingdoms doctrine differed from traditional Lutheran formulations lies in the application of the law-gospel distinction. Lutherans have often associated the kingdom of God’s left hand (generally analogous to the Reformed conception of the civil kingdom) with the law (that is, what God commands) and associated the kingdom of God’s right hand (generally analogous to the Reformed conception of the spiritual kingdom) with the gospel (that is, what God promises). To many Lutherans this meant that areas of the church’s life that bore the character of law—such as ecclesiastical government or discipline—belonged to the kingdom of the left hand, and thus in many Lutheran lands the civil government took oversight of them.28 In distinction, the Reformed typically saw ecclesiastical government and discipline as vital aspects of the identity of the church, the present institutional manifestation of the spiritual kingdom. The church was to take full responsibility for its government and discipline and not cede jurisdiction to the state. For the Reformed the church as the spiritual kingdom of Christ was characterized by both law and gospel (though by the law primarily in its “third use,” that is, as a fitting response to the gospel).
This Reformed two-kingdoms doctrine, as I have briefly summarized it, finds strong exegetical foundation in Matt 5:38–42, read in its Matthean context. Jesus announced the coming of his kingdom. Like the spiritual kingdom of historic Reformed theology, this was a heavenly and eschatological kingdom, yet one breaking into this present age and finding institutional expression in the life and ministry of the church. This kingdom, furthermore, like the Reformed spiritual kingdom, has a distinctive ethic characterized by forgiveness and reconciliation, not by retributive justice. It is promulgated not through the violent coercion of the sword but by the word and sacraments, the keys of the kingdom of heaven. The kingdom in Matthew, finally, came not to abolish civil enforcement of justice or Christians’ participation in that work, but to establish a distinctive ecclesial community in anticipation of the full manifestation of the kingdom on the last day. The Reformed two-kingdoms doctrine expresses these ideas as well. The church exists not to replace the state or to usurp and modify its functions, but recognizes civil authority as already established by God and serving useful, though temporal, purposes in the present age.
The Reformed two-kingdoms doctrine captures the teaching of Matt 5:38–42 better than the Lutheran doctrine, in short, because it recognizes that a distinctive ethic is a crucial aspect of the kingdom of heaven, an ethic that should be beautifully manifested in the discipline of church. Church discipline, which drives at the repentance and reconciliation of sinners, is decidedly different from the retributive justice enforced by the state. The state, which owes its existence not to the coming of the kingdom in the work of Christ, but to God’s providential upholding of the world through the Noahic covenant, does not have the resources to minister forgiveness to wayward rebels. At the same time, I suggest that a Reformed two-kingdoms doctrine also captures the meaning of Matt 5:38–42 better than a contemporary neo-Calvinist or transformationist paradigm. The kingdom of heaven came not in order to redeem all institutions and spheres of life in this present world, but to redeem sinners and to gather them into an ecclesial community, until the day when the civil institutions of this age are brought to a sudden end. In Matthew Jesus announced a kingdom way of life strikingly different from the state’s task of enforcing retributive justice, yet did not question the ongoing existence of civil authority and believers’ participation in its work. Had Jesus intended the state to be transformed by the ethic of the kingdom of heaven, the state would presumably have to give up its work of coercive enforcement of retributive justice, for Matt 5:38–42 proclaims that this has no place in his kingdom. Yet in Matthew Jesus himself indicates that the state has continuing authority to pursue this work, a point that Paul makes explicitly (e.g., Rom 13:1–7).
5. Concluding Practical Reflections
The issues under consideration in this article raise many practical questions about the Christian life in the church and world. I conclude by offering a few brief reflections on some important practical issues.
First, Christians concerned to follow the commands of Jesus in the Sermon must be passionate first and foremost about the life and ministry of the church. They must expend their energy in faithfully proclaiming the gospel and bringing the peaceful, reconciliation-seeking way of life to bear within the church community. The church must express the reality of the kingdom of heaven, making disciples as it baptizes and teaches (28:19–20).
Second, while Christians’ passion for the kingdom through the church relativizes the importance of and their interest in the ordinary affairs and institutions of this world (e.g., Matt 6:19–21, 25–34; 8:18–22; 10:34–39; 12:46–50; 13:44–46; 19:16–30; 24:37–41), they continue to have obligations within it. Christians remain citizens of the kingdom of heaven at all times and must certainly seek ways to express their Christ-like spirit of love and forgiveness in all sorts of activities. How exactly they will do this cannot be specified in advance. But they must remember that enforcement of justice through the threat of coercion remains the primary means by which civil order is maintained. The civil kingdom continues to exist as a legitimate divine institution. To despise, ignore, or undermine it is not faithful Christian discipleship.
Finally, the legitimacy of self-defense depends upon the context: am I being assailed as just another citizen of the civil kingdom or as a disciple of Jesus and hence as a member of the church? If an individual Christian is threatened by a burglar who breaks into his home to steal his property, this is an ordinary civil matter, and the Christian (who, in this setting, just happens to be a Christian) is free (and perhaps even obligated?) to defend himself or seek coercive legal remedy. But if an individual Christian is threatened because of her Christian faith, because she is identified with Christ as a member of his church, then is non-retaliation perhaps the appropriate response? The context of Matt 5:38–42 suggests an affirmative answer. Jesus most likely envisions his disciples being slapped, stripped, and conscripted not in ordinary civil disputes but specifically as his disciples: “Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me” (5:10–11).29 The apostolic example suggests that Christians, in the face of state action, may peaceably appeal to the civil government to abide by its own laws (e.g., Acts 22:25–29). The apostles, however, never retaliated when government officials treated them unjustly and never pursued legal action against those who persecuted them. The disruption of the civil kingdom may be avenged by the sword but the persecution of the kingdom of heaven may not.