And whoever compels you to go one mile, go with him two. (Matthew 5:41, N.K.J.V.)
In its specific scriptural context, this verse has nothing to do with putting in the extra hours required to become a success in the business world. Neither does it have anything to do with outworking the competition in the realm of athletics or even fanatically devoting yourself to church work. No, “going the second mile” is all about one thing: the Christian rendering service to lost people.
In the empire of ancient Rome, a Roman official or soldier had the right to press a common citizen into compulsory service to carry a load or run an errand. This explains why the Roman soldiers who were in charge of Christ’s crucifixion were able to force a Cyrenian named Simon to carry Christ’s cross (Matthew 27:32). But the rule had a limit. The citizen could only be made to perform the task for one mile. Christ’s command to His followers, however, was that they should volunteer to perform the task for an extra mile.
We can just imagine the first time a rough, rugged Roman soldier brutally drafted a follower of Christ into action. “You there, get over here and carry this load for your required mile.” At the end of the mile, though, the follower of Christ kept going. Perhaps the soldier said, “That’s enough, you’ve done your duty” only to have the follower of Christ say, “I know, but my Lord says that I should go with you a second mile.”
What kind of influence do you think such an encounter would have had on a spiritually lost Roman soldier? I suppose that some of the soldiers mocked Christ’s followers and took even greater advantage of them. Others, however, must have been touched by the encounters and their hearts softened toward Jesus and His people.
Of course going the extra mile was just one of the ways in which Jesus commanded His followers to act differently than the rest of the world. He also said, “Rather than seek the revenge of an eye for an eye, if an evil person slaps you on your right cheek, take the brunt of the blow and present your left cheek for the person to strike as well” (Matthew 5:38-39). “And if someone threatens to file a lawsuit to take away your tunic, go ahead and let the person have not only your tunic but also your outer cloak” (Matthew 5:40).
To get the full depth of these commands, we mustn’t miss the fact that each of them deals with a cruel injustice that is perpetrated by an evil person. As Jesus put it, “But I tell you not to resist an evil person” (Matthew 5:39, N.K.J.V.). This means that the follower of Christ should perform these difficult tasks as nothing less than acts of service to lost people.
You might be asking, “Russell, are you saying that the only people who do evil acts are lost people?” No, I’m not saying that. I know full well that professing Christians do sometimes commit evil acts. As we study the Bible, though, we understand the assumption that the follower of Christ is expected to live in a manner that is holy rather than evil. Therefore, the “evil person” of whom Jesus speaks must be a lost person. You see, when the Christian serves a lost person in this way, the Christian evidences the difference that being a follower of Jesus has made in his or her life and (ideally) creates a thirst for Jesus within that lost person.
Because of this it is unfortunate that most Christians take an adversarial approach to lost people rather than a service approach to them. I know that I myself tend to say of lost people who do me wrong turns, “How can I get even with them?” rather than, “How can I serve them?” I mean, let’s admit it, these commands from Jesus are pretty hard to swallow and even harder to live out.
And yet here they stand, right where they have stood for 2,000 years. So tell me, Christian, are you obedient enough to put the commands into action? The next time a lost person treats you badly, will you force yourself to think, “What good thing can I do for this person in return?” Again, that’s a difficult assignment. No doubt about that. But if you complete the assignment, you might be amazed at how Jesus uses your actions. Who knows? You might even play a major role in winning that lost person to Christ.