If someone strikes you on one cheek, turn the other to him.
This verse is not talking about the death penalty or any other type of civil crime or punishment for crimes. Interestingly, people who quote this verse as saying there should not be a death penalty do not seem to grasp that the verse is saying there should not be any kind of retribution at all. If this verse were applied universally to the criminal justice system, it would mean no fines, no jails and not even any community service. Surely even the most liberal of people do not believe that we can have a safe society and enforce no laws at all!
Why would Christ say something like “turn the other cheek”? What did he mean? In the culture of the Bible, touching or striking someone on the cheek was an insult. It was the equivalent of calling someone a dirty name today. Jesus knew that his disciples would be insulted, and that it is a waste of one’s life to try to get “satisfaction” for an insult. So he instructed people to “turn the other cheek,” i.e., ignore insults, and by showing the other cheek, show that you are firm in your beliefs and actions even if it means you will be insulted again.
Other Bible verses show that slapping someone on the cheek was an insult:
Let him offer his cheek to one who would strike him and let him be filled with disgrace.
Men open their mouths to jeer at me, they strike my cheek in scorn.
I offered my cheeks, I did not hide from mocking and spitting.
A wonderful example of slapping on the face as an insult occurs in 1 Kings. The Israelite king, Ahab, was trying to convince the Judean king, Jehoshaphat, to join forces with him and fight the Arameans. Ahab brought out an impressive number of prophets who all foretold success in the mission. However, there was no prophet of the true God represented. Jehoshaphat insisted on hearing from one. Ahab at last found a prophet of Yahweh, a man named Micaiah, who insulted the other prophets by first mocking what they had said, and then giving a contradictory prophecy—which came true, by the way. One of the false prophets, a man named Zedekiah was incensed: “Then Zedekiah, son of Kenaanah, went up and slapped Micaiah in the face” (1 Kings 22:24). This was not an attack on Micaiah’s life or body. Zedekiah was insulted by Micaiah’s words, and he insulted Micaiah back in a way that was perfectly understood in the culture. Micaiah, as if following the words of Jesus spoken some 800 years later, ignored Zedekiah’s insult and simply kept on speaking the words God gave him to speak.
Christians need to follow the advice of the Lord and learn to ignore insults without burning in anger. We also need to know the culture and customs of the Bible so that we can correctly interpret such verses. The command to “turn the other cheek” has no bearing on the criminal justice system and the justice exercised by the government in the defense of society, and neither does it have anything to do with self-defense or war.