4. Eye for an Eye or Turn the Other Cheek

Perhaps the most commonly felt difference between the Old and New Testaments relates to the balance between justice and mercy. Under the Old Testament law, there was a strong emphasis on justice and the punishments to be levelled at those who committed crimes. Oft quoted is the phrase “an eye for an eye”, which comes from the Law of Moses which had punishments equivalent to the crime,

Leviticus 24:19: "If a man injures his neighbor, just as he has done, so it shall be done to him: 20. fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; just as he has injured a man, so it shall be inflicted on him. WEB

In the New Testament, Jesus refers to this aspect of the law, and directs his followers in a different direction.

Matt 5:38: "You have heard that it was said, `An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.' 39. But I tell you, don't resist him who is evil; but whoever strikes you on your right cheek, turn to him the other also. WEB

So through the New Testament, we see emphasised the importance of “love your neighbour”, and forgiving those who trespess against us, to a greater extent than in the Old. However, those aspects are still a part of the principles contained in the Old Testament. The Law of Moses contained many provisions that taught and enforced a culture that would loving and conscious of others in the community.

Leviticus 23:22: When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not wholly reap into the corners of your field, neither shall you gather the gleanings of your harvest: you shall leave them for the poor, and for the foreigner. I am Yahweh your God. WEB

Leviticus 25:35: If your brother has become poor, and his hand can't support him among you; then you shall uphold him. As a stranger and a sojourner he shall live with you. WEB

Leviticus 19:18: You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the children of your people; but you shall love your neighbor as yourself. I am Yahweh. WEB

Essentially, in keeping the Old Testament law in the way that it was intended, people would express love and care for their neighbours. In many ways, the teachings of Jesus were directed at correcting the ways the people had used legalism to misuse God's Law.

Laws in the Christian Era

Perhaps the biggest difference remaining between the two eras relates to law and enforcement. The Law of Moses contains many prescriptive laws about how life should be lived, together with a set of punishments to be applied against those who broke the laws. To the contrary, the New Testament demonstrates how Christianity is not about the obedience of laws, but rather in a faith to God.

A key to understanding the shift in focus is to recognise the context of the teachings in the New Testament. The Israelites under Moses were in a very different position to the Christians in the apostolic era. Under Moses, it was a nation of people, complete with a system of governance, policing, and justice system. However, in the case of those under Christ, it was always assumed that those elements are supplied by an external power. The basic rule of justice was outside the realms of Christian life, because Christians were instead told to come out of the secular world and leave it to govern itself.

In the context of Christ and the apostles, justice was administered by the Roman empire and its provincial powers. The believers were additionally told that their new-found freedom in Christ did not remove the responsibility to obey this form of justice.

Romans 13:1: Let every soul be in subjection to the higher authorities, for there is no authority except from God, and those who exist are ordained by God. 2. Therefore he who resists the authority, withstands the ordinance of God; and those who withstand will receive to themselves judgment. 3. For rulers are not a terror to the good work, but to the evil. Do you desire to have no fear of the authority? Do that which is good, and you will have praise from the same, 4. for he is a servant of God to you for good. But if you do that which is evil, be afraid, for he doesn't bear the sword in vain; for he is a minister of God, an avenger for wrath to him who does evil. WEB

Paul here is essentially endorsing the role of the Roman justice system to preserve basic law and order. The Christian teachings did not include these law-and-order elements characteristic of the Mosaic Law because they were to be administered by the secular national powers. Additionally, these were no less severe, to the extent that Roman law was in many ways more harsh and decisive than that in the Law of Moses. In Peter, the brutalities of Roman law enforcement are depicted as the vengeance of God,

1 Peter 2:13: Therefore subject yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord's sake: whether to the king, as supreme; 14. or to governors, as sent by him for vengeance on evil-doers and for praise to those who do well. WEB

This may raise the question of how we are to obey a law that may be contrary to the teachings of God. The principle shown is that God is our first master, and following him takes first precedence. When the Jewish religious rulers questioned the Apostles about teaching of Jesus, they stated this principle.

Acts 5:28: ...“Didn't we strictly charge you not to teach in this name? Behold, you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching, and intend to bring this man's blood on us.” 29. But Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than men.” WEB

The reality though, is that many of illegal actions in Roman Judea were also things abhorrent to God, such as murder and theft. For these things God endorses the role of secular governance to enact his vengeance.

The Old Testament carries a greater degree of prescribed justice than the New, because it also includes the role of a national justice system. This is due to a different context, and not a change in the nature of God.

This nature of the New Testament also implies something of the role of Christianity through the generations following Jesus. The principles were laid down on the basis that Christian worship would be something independent of national governance. Christianity was to remain a body of believers motivated out of genuine faith, and the aspects of criminal justice were to stay outside of its bounds. This is consistent with the idea expressed in the New Testament in how the faithful in Christ would remain a minority of among the people of the world. Jesus speaks of this in terms of it being entering through a narrow gate, rather than the wide gate of the worldliness,

Matthew 7:13: Enter in by the narrow gate; for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and many are those who enter in by it. 14. How narrow is the gate, and restricted is the way that leads to life! Few are those who find it. WEB

We can deduce from this that Christians were to remain a minority in the population. They were to be a people who would turn the other cheek in terms of justice, but would also live in a society administered by civil laws akin to those of the Law of Moses or of the Roman Empire.