In my previous post I started to talk about war and pacifism and why Christians cannot seem to agree on this topic. One could be forgiven for reading the Bible and concluding that Jesus is the Prince of Peace but His father a God of War. Yet these same scriptures testify that Jesus is the perfect representation of His Father, His express image and purest expression revealed to man. So how do we get around this dilemma? One ancient heresy called Marcionism simply discarded the Old Testament and followed the New. The problem with this though is that Jesus Himself drew greatly from the Old Testament in his own teachings, they clearly had His stamp of approval on them and so anyone who claims to ‘follow Jesus’ needs to approach their OT with the same degree of respect and seriousness. Another far more common method of solving the problem is to simply water down both Testaments until they fit neatly together. So verses like the two below are interpreted rather liberally or ignored entirely. These verses come from Numbers 31:17-18 where Moses is angry with his soldiers for not having killed the Midianite woman and the children when slaughtering the men as well, this was part of his instructions to his army.
Now therefore, kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman who has known a man intimately. But keep alive for yourselves all the young girls who have not known a man intimately.
In other words, kill all the male children and women but you can keep the virgins as the spoils of war. We often hear and are shocked and disgusted that Pharaoh had all of the young boys murdered when Moses was a baby and likewise when Herod tried to kill Jesus and did the same in Bethlehem. But when we get to Numbers 31 we come up with something like, yeah but you need to understand the context and so killing children, babies and ladies of another faith is actually merciful or Gods judgment etc.
Anyway, I am getting a bit side tracked here and will return to the Old Testament in my fourth and final post in this series but for now let me refocus on the point that I want to raise. Many Christians, knowing the stories of the flood, the genocide of the Canaanites, a one man army called Samson, a mighty warrior named David and so on, have concluded that Jesus words of love for your enemies and neighbors, responding to evil with goodness, showing forgiveness and mercy and grace cannot be absolutes. Because if they were, then we need to ask some hard questions around the Old Testament and start apologizing for things like the Crusades and the burning of heretics and witches and the drowning of the Anabaptists and for the thousands of dead and orphaned children in the Middle East in the last century. Using David Servant’s post mentioned in my previous blog, I would like to look today at how Christians have tried to soften Jesus‘ words by depicting Him more like the warrior God that many people seem to prefer in an attempt to reconcile the violent and meek portrayals of God in scripture.
The New Testament
Almost everyone is quick to admit that The New Testament could be stamped with a far lighter age restriction for violence than the Old but there are some portions that always get highlighted which I would like to look at. Apart from Jesus commands to love ones neighbor as he loves himself and to love and bless your enemies which David argued in his post cannot be taken as umbrella statements extended to all people which I will address in my next post, there are four other arguments that he and others generally use to try and justify violence.
The first argument against non violence and non resistance is taken from a verse where Jesus tells His disciples to buy swords. I used this verse myself a long time ago when I was on the other side of the fence on this debate. Let's read it in Luke 22:35-38:
And [Jesus] said to [His apostles], “When I sent you out without money belt and bag and sandals, you did not lack anything, did you?” They said, “No, nothing.” And He said to them, “But now, whoever has a money belt is to take it along, likewise also a bag, and whoever has no sword is to sell his coat and buy one. For I tell you that this which is written must be fulfilled in Me, ‘And He was numbered with the transgressors’; for that which refers to Me has its fulfillment.” They said, “Lord, look, here are two swords.” And He said to them, “It is enough” (Luke 22:35-38).
I'm not the only one to use this verse before, David mentions it in his article as well but here is the thing. Why did Jesus tell His disciples to get some swords and what was the purpose for carrying them? Were the swords for self defense as many presuppose? They cannot be and here is why, the section above itself tells us why Jesus told them to get 'a couple' of swords, it was simply to fulfill what was previously written in order that He would be 'numbered with the transgressors'. Two swords is not enough if you intend on using them against the Roman soldiers or a band of thieves but it is enough to fulfill a scripture as Jesus sees it. Moreover, when Peter actually does go and pull one of them out and chops a guys ear off with it, Jesus intervenes and heals the man, in other words, He repays evil with kindness. If that is not enough, He rebukes Peter and says to him, “Put your sword back into its place; for all those who take up the sword shall perish by the sword” (Matt. 26:52). If we are going to justify godly violence through Jesus' words and actions then this certainly is not the scene to build your case on. There is of course one more time when Jesus Himself is portrayed with a sword which I will address when I get to the book of Revelation.
Jesus' violent outburst in the Temple
"The pacifist claim that Jesus never used force to achieve His objectives is also patently untrue. Jesus at least once “made a scourge of cords” (John 2:15) and violently drove money changers from the temple while overturning their tables. “Gentle Jesus” was not always so gentle".
This was David's statement regarding Jesus' actions when He 'cleansed' the temple but I think that he is wrong about this one as well. I have written about this before so instead of repeating everything here I will post a link to that article (click here) and make just a few simple observations about Jesus' 'cleansing' of the temple.
1 - His actions were not spur of the moment rage but premeditated and deliberate. Before Jesus even enters the temple or the city He wept over it (Luke 19:41-44), John 2 mentions that He made a whip, that would have taken Him at least a few minutes. Note here that if you have ever worked with farm animals like bulls and sheep the sound of a cracking whip is a great way to steer them, Jesus didn't go all Indiana Jones on anyone or use it as a weapon. Anyone who claims that is reading into the text what simply is not there.
2 - According to John 2:18 the Jews did not interpret the turned over tables as the actions of an out of control man, rather, they saw them as the symbolic actions of a prophet.John 2:18 says, "What sign do You show to us, since You do these things"? We have all watched movies recreating this scene before but does this statement maybe cause you to envision it a little differently?
3 - If not, then consider this, in the Gospel of Matthew this account ends with the blind and the lame coming to Jesus and Him healing them while the children around him rejoiced and sang "Hosanna to the Son of David" (Mathew 21:14-15). One has to wonder, if Jesus' actions were really that violent then you would expect the children to be scattering and the lame to keep their distance but that is not what happened. Perhaps the prophet got it right when he wrote in Isaiah 53:9 that there was no violence or deceit found in Him.
The war imagery
Good Christians tend to distance themselves from things that are seemingly bad. So the argument here is that if war was something bad and unchristian then the New Testament writers would have distanced themselves from the terminology that we find in some of the epistles. For example, Paul encouraged believers to “put on the full armor of God” (Ephesians 6:11-17). He also referred to Epaphroditus and Archippus as his “fellow soldiers” (Phillipians 2:25; Philemon 2), and admonished Timothy to “Suffer hardship with me, as a good soldier of Christ Jesus” (2 Tim. 2:3). This is a fairly odd argument to make since Paul also reminded us that we do not wrestle against flesh and blood. The analogies simply can't be used to endorse actual military actions. Jesus on occasion used odd examples Himself, the parable of the unjust steward or the shrewd manager, the good Samaritan, He told us to be as wise as serpents as well... No one assumes that Jesus approves of unjust stewardship or that serpents like the one in Genesis 3 should be commended for their wisdom, neither should we assume that Paul endorsed war because he drew from the imagery around it.
The Book of Revelation
The first time Jesus came as a lamb but next time He will return as a lion right? I have heard that saying as I am sure that you have as well. If anyone is going to make a case for a violent, blood thirsty, vengeful god then Revelation is certainly your best bet in the New Testament. As David once again put it, 'And when Jesus returns, Scripture foretells us that “in righteousness He judges and wages war.” (Rev. 19:11)'. This is another point which I have addressed elsewhere before and so I would rather point you toward that article (over here) than rehash everything here once again. But let me once again make just a few points on the book of Revelation.
1 - The Jesus of the Gospels is the same yesterday, today and forever. He did not abandon His values laid out in the Sermon on the Mount.
2 - Revelation 5 tells us that Jesus won not by killing His enemies but by dying for them. The lion that John hears about in Revelation 5 he is startled by when he looks and sees as a slain lamb. Paul said that this message sounds foolish to those who are perishing but to those who are being saved the cross reveals the power of God (1 Corinthians 1:18).
3 - Revelation only once refers to Jesus as a lion and then turns the imagery on its head by proclaiming Him as the lamb, a title used a further 27 times for Him during the remainder of the book.
4 - John cleverly uses violent imagery in Revelation to contrast it with the way of the Lamb. For example, the sword Jesus carries is not in His hand but in His mouth, meaning that His weapon is truth. Jesus wears a robe into battle with His own blood on it while His 'soldiers' are all dressed in white.
Of course there is more that could be discussed with all of these points and feel free to bring up any questions, rebuttals or insights in the comments but I hope that I have laid sufficient ground to open some readers up to a different way of thinking about war and violence and the disciples relationship to them. Stay tuned for part 3 in this series, for now let me leave you with one more verse to reflect on.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God. - Matthew 5:9.