Last week we looked at the Lex Talionis, the law of retaliation, or the law of the tooth and we saw how Jesus responded to that with a statement that has caused men and women for centuries to view Jesus as a pacifist. Yet Jesus’ teaching also contains imagery that can be described as nothing short of barbaric.
The Temple Cleansing
And Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who sold and bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons. He said to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer,’ but you make it a den of robbers.”
– Matthew 21:12-13, ESV
The familiar scene above depicts Jesus on the verge of rage, if not waist-deep in it. Textual evidence indicates that Jesus did this not once, but twice during his three-year ministry. There is much to study related to this event and we will do so next week. For now, suffice it to say that the cleansing is far from what we would expect from a man who is a pacifist and who teaches non-violence. It was an exceedingly violent action, and not one taken in self-defense. Jesus was the aggressor. The temple cleansing was a significant enough event in the life of the Messiah that all four gospels include it.
In Matthew 26, we find Jesus in the garden with his disciples, waiting for the arrest brought about by the betrayal of Judas. When the crowd, led by Judas, comes to make their arrest, Peter unsheathed his sword and went to work with it, and in his effort ended up cutting off the ear of Malchus, the high priest’s servant.1 The impetuousness of Peter’s act is laughable from a certain perspective, and entirely inappropriate. The response of Jesus diffused the tense situation by touching Malchus’ missing ear and healing it.2 Peter’s desire to protect Jesus is admirable, but absurd when facing the armed horde that had been sent to retrieve Jesus. The disciples faced the crowd with only two swords.3 (We may recall, in light of this rather rash behavior on Peter’s part, that Peter has already affirmed his willingness to lay down his own life for Jesus.)
Jesus responded to Peter’s action by saying “Put your sword back in its place; for all those who take up the sword shall perish by the sword.”4 Note that Jesus did not tell Peter to get rid of his sword, but rather to put it back into its scabbard.
It is undoubtedly true that those who live by the sword will likely die by it as well. Those who live by the handgun will most likely die by the same. There is no deep truth to what Jesus said, but rather obvious truth, and it sounds very much like the teaching from Jesus wherein he said that the measure I use will be measured back to me. If I am violent and forceful against others, I can expect them to be violent and forceful against me. If I am underhanded and dishonest toward others, I can expect them to be underhanded and dishonest toward me.
Jesus concludes his rebuke of Peter by reminding Peter that he can call for twelve legions of angels.5 He does not do so because the scriptures must be fulfilled. In saying this to Peter, Jesus demonstrates that his objection is not toward Peter’s sense of loyalty in wanting to defend him, but rather that the scriptures regarding Jesus’ capture, trial, and crucifixion must play out as prophesied.
Bear in mind, this is the same Jesus who instructed his disciples to sell their cloak in order to buy a sword,6 and it is the same Jesus who said that he did not come to bring peace on earth, but rather a sword.7
Love Your Enemies
In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught that we should love our enemies and pray for our persecutors.8 Extending this teaching to conclude that Jesus was a pacifist, and as such prohibits injury to an enemy, would result in Christ-followers never defending themselves against an invasion, or never punishing a crime – particularly using capital punishment. We have examples throughout scripture, in both the Old and New Testaments, of God himself exercising capital punishment.
Theologian C.S. Lewis had this to say on that subject:
Does loving your enemy mean not punishing him? No, for loving myself does not mean that I ought not to subject myself to punishment – even to death. If you had committed a murder, the right Christian thing to do would be to give yourself up to the police and be hanged. It is, therefore, in my opinion, perfectly right for a Christian judge to sentence a man to death or a Christian soldier to kill an enemy. I always have thought so, ever since I became a Christian, and long before the war, and I still think so now that we are at peace.9
If we are never to use violence against an enemy, we cannot defend the weak and the helpless. The pacifist response would be to step aside and allow an attacker to assault his victim.
We see multiple instances in the life of Jesus wherein he interacted with soldiers. In no case did Jesus ever suggest that the soldier’s line of work was to be disrespected, that it was in any way inferior, or that the soldier is to lay down his arms and find a new line of work. Jesus never suggested that a nation should not have an army. When Jesus’ cousin John was asked by a group of soldiers for some life instruction, he responded, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or by false accusation, and be content with your wages.”10
One of the most astonishing healings in the gospel record was one performed on behalf of a Roman Centurion.11 Similarly, it is Cornelius, a Roman Centurion, upon whom is bestowed the honor of being the first Gentile to receive the Holy Spirit.
If we conclude based on pacifism that it is immoral to be a soldier, then it is equally immoral to be a police officer. Both professions employ violence in the execution of their duties. Contrary to such a view, both the apostle Paul and the apostle Peter teach that governing authorities are ministers of God for our good, who bear the sword as an avenger, bringing wrath upon those who practice evil and praise to those who do right.12
Jesus distinguishes between his kingdom and the kingdoms of this world. In doing so, Jesus clearly states that the kingdoms of this world use violence to protect their own interests. Thus, if Jesus’ kingdom were of this world, his servants would be fighting to prevent his capture.13
Yahweh of Old
If we accept the premise that Jesus is God in the flesh, the Alpha and the Omega, and if we assert that Jesus teaches non-violence, then we have numerous disturbing inconsistencies with God’s view and use of violence throughout the Old Testament. It is there we find bloodshed and violence that leaves the filmmakers of Hollywood looking like amateurs.
Knowing that Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever,14 Jesus cannot contradict himself. Immanuel is God with us – the creator of all things,15 and the God of Abraham, Issac, and Jacob. He is the giver of the Law and commandments of the Old Testament.
The difficulty arises when we attempt to reconcile a pacifist God with the extreme violence of the Old Testament. In Deuteronomy, God instructed the Israelites to “not leave alive anything that breathes. But you shall utterly destroy them.”16 Entire nations were to be obliterated: the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites.17 In conquering Agag, king of the Amalekites, Saul kept the king alive, but slew all of his citizens with the sword.18 Through Isaiah, God directed the slaughter of the sons of the king of Babylon (most likely Sennacherib) for the sins of their forefathers, lest they rise up and inherit the land.19
Similarly, through Ezekiel, God instructed the scribe clothed in linen to go through the city of Jerusalem and “utterly slay old men, young men, maidens, little children, and women” who did not have the mark of faithfulness on them.20 He was directed to not let his eye have pity. Following a successful campaign against the Midianite kings, the army killed all the men but kept the women, children, and livestock. This angered Moses because these women had led the Israelites astray earlier. Moses commanded the army to kill every male child and every woman who had been physically intimate with a man.21 King David was an exceedingly violent man, yet he is the one man in all of scripture who is described as the man after God’s own heart.22 The Old Testament is replete with examples of such violence, much of it directly commanded by God.
The End of All Things
Jesus teaches us that in the last days there will be wars and rumors of war, that nation will rise against nation, and he says that these things “must take place.”23 Jesus’ description of the final Day of Judgement is the depiction of a terribly violent day as Jesus punishes disobedience. The Lord who taught us that we should love our enemies and pray for our persecutors describes a day in which those enemies will be sent to eternal fire.24
Do What We Can to Maintain Peace
As disciples of Jesus, the Prince of Peace who said “Blessed are the peacemakers,”25 our primary disposition is toward a peaceful resolution. The apostle Paul affirms this disposition, saying “If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men.”26
I find no evidence in the gospels that Jesus ever taught pacifism, but rather that he acknowledged violence, illustrated with it in his teaching, employed it when he saw it necessary and appropriate, and stated that it must occur before the last days are complete. Despite how uncomfortable it makes me, objectivity and consistency demand I accept these realities.
1. Matthew 26:51, Luke 22:50, John 18:10
2. Luke 22:51
3. Luke 22:38
4. Matthew 26:52b, NASB
5. Matthew 26:53
6. Luke 22:36
7. Matthew 10:34
8. Matthew 5:33-34
9. Lewis, C.S. (1952). Mere Christianity. (p. 106). New York, NY: Macmillan Publishing Co. Inc.
10. Luke 3:14, ESV
11. Luke 7:1-10
12. Romans 13:1-4, 1 Peter 2:13-14
13. John 18:36
14. Hebrews 13:8
15. John 1:1-3, Colossians 1:16
16. Deuteronomy 20:16b-17a
17. Deuteronomy 20:17
18. 1st Samuel15:7-8
19. Isaiah 14:21
20. Ezekiel 9:6
21. Numbers 31:17
22. Acts 13:22
23. Matthew 24:6-7
24. Matthew 25:41-46
25. Matthew 5:9
26. Romans 12:18