What Christians Miss When They Can’t Assemble

They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayers… And all those who had believed were together and had all things in common. – Acts 2.42, 44

From the very beginning, God designed the church to be together. Due to the recent spread of the coronavirus disease, a vast majority of congregations have decided to cancel their regularly scheduled weekly services.

It should be noted that those churches which have chosen not to assemble are not simply acting out of fear. Even faithful Christians who do not fear death feel a deep level of love and concern for those who are most vulnerable to the disease, as Wesley Hazel has articulated so well here.

It should also be noted when churches temporarily cancel services due to extremely unique health concerns, this is not “forsaking the assembly” as several others have effectively explained.

As Jack Wilke has rightly observed, now is not the time to disregard the authority of our elders, or to “downplay [another congregation’s] autonomy, diminish their eldership, and place ourselves as an arbiter of their of their church’s decision.”

If you are struggling with guilt over your congregation’s decision to temporarily cancel services, I encourage you to carefully consider the points these brothers have raised, and then search the scriptures to see if these things are so.

At the same time, if you are missing your regular routine of gathering with other Christians, that’s a good thing! When Christians can’t assemble, they should miss it! From the very beginning of the church, Christians have prioritized the practice of assembling together. Live-streamed worship services and social media interaction is a great blessing that can help us temporarily fill some gaps while we are separated, but they will never be a suitable replacement for Christian assembly.

Christians Miss Praying Together

Of course we can and should pray individually while social distancing (Mt. 6.5-6). But the early church had a practice of praying together.

And when they heard this, they lifted their voices to God with one accord and said, “O Lord, it is You who made the heaven and the earth and the sea, and all that is in them…” – Acts 4.24

So Peter was kept in the prison, but prayer for him was being made fervently by the church to God. – Acts 12.5

It is important to pray with other believers. Praying together encourages us and unifies us as we share our common faith. Those who may be alone and struggling, can be greatly encouraged as they hear others praying with them. It also builds up love and concern for others as we intercede together.

The good news is that this is not completely impossible during this time of separation. It may require extra effort, such as calling someone, and (though it may feel awkward at first) inviting them to pray with you over the phone. Churches should also take care to livestream prayers along with their livestreamed lessons.

Christians Miss Singing Together

Once again, we can and should sing privately (Ja. 5.13). But part of the point of singing is “teaching and admonishing one another” (Col. 3.16) and “speaking to one another” (Eph. 5.19).

We often think that “teaching and admonishing” are tasks reserved for teachers and leaders in the congregation. But Paul’s command was for the entire church, not just the leadership. We all have a role to play in helping one another grow in wisdom, love, and knowledge. Paul also tells them that one unique way to do this is in our singing. Our songs are indeed directed vertically, as praise towards God, but they are also directed horizontally towards one another. The words we sing can teach, inspire, strengthen, and lift up our brothers and sisters. This is something that we can’t do when we are separated, and we should miss it.

Christians Miss Studying Scripture Together

Once again, private Bible study is important. But it was important for the early church to be “devoting themselves to the apostle’s doctrine” while gathering together (Acts 2.42, 44). Although nothing requires that Christians must do this in large assemblies of hundreds of people, Luke observes the practice of the early church in this way:

And every day, in the temple and from house to house, they kept right on teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ. – Acts 5.42

When Christians study Scripture together, we have built in “checks and balances”. A group of Christians studying together are less likely to all make the same interpretation mistake as one individual. We all come to the passage with slightly different eyes and backgrounds, and are more likely to discern the author’s original meaning when we work together. Studying scripture together builds relationships and unifies us around a common understanding of the truth.

When the early church gathered on the first day of the week to break bread, they also took the time consider God’s message together (Acts 20.7).

Speaking of breaking bread…

Christians Miss Sharing the Lord’s Supper Together

On the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread, Paul began talking to them, intending to leave the next day, and he prolonged his message until midnight. – Acts 20.7

One of the most important reasons the church gathered on the first day of the week was to break bread together. The Lord’s Supper is something we are supposed to share with one another.

Is not the cup of blessing which we bless as sharing in the blood of Christ? Is not the bread which we break a sharing in the body of Christ? Since there is one bread, we who are many are one body; for we all partake of the one bread. – 1 Corinthians 10.16-17

This is something can’t do when we can’t assemble. Of course we can, and should, partake of the Lord’s Supper in our homes, and as we eat that bread, we should be mindful of our brothers and sisters scattered all over the world who are sharing that bread with us. But the Lord’s Supper is designed as something we share together. That’s why Paul instructed the church at Corinth to “wait for one another” before partaking (1 Cor. 11.33).

Sharing that one bread reminds us that we are one body. Bodies are not designed to be separated, and when they are separated, it should be painful and it should be temporary. Separated body parts don’t survive long without being reattached to the body. We must reassemble as soon as we possibly can.

Christians Miss Sharing and Giving

The early church was noteworthy for the way they came together to share with one another.

And those who had believed were together and had all things in common; and they began selling their property and possessions and were sharing them with all, as anyone might have need. – Acts 2.44-45

When necessity arose, the church systematized their giving, by giving on each first day of the week when they gathered together (1 Cor. 16.1-2). When Christians gather together, this makes it easy both to identify the needs of one another and it becomes convenient to give. When Christians give together, we are able to hold one another accountable for our generosity.

We are facing a time when many Christians are, and will be struggling. Layoffs and income reduction are happening everywhere throughout our economy. Financial needs are higher than they have been in a long time. Yet without the convenience of the weekly assembly, almost every congregation is experiencing a significant decrease in their contributions.

Yes, we can and must give even when we can’t assemble. We should be reaching out to our elders and asking them how. But we certainly miss the convenience and accountability that comes with Christian assemblies.

Christians Miss Love and Encouragement

And let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more as you see the day drawing near. – Hebrews 10.24-25

The word translated “forsaking” is a word for complete abandonment. Temporarily canceling services is not “forsaking the assembly.” But we must emphasize the word “temporary” and we must assemble together again as soon as possible, even if only in groups of ten meeting in back yards in the open air with ten feet between each chair.

According to this scripture, one of the purposes of assembling is to stimulate love and good deeds. In other words, by assembling together, Christians have an opportunity to deepen their relationships with one another and to encourage one another into deeper involvement in the works of the church. When Christians can’t assemble, relationships and involvement both suffer.

“Let Us Go to the House of the Lord”

It is to be hoped that as churches go through this time of separation, that Christians will grow to appreciate the privilege of assembling more than ever before. It may be that this will help us all to develop an attitude like that expressed by David in Psalm 122.2

I was glad when they said to me,
“Let us go to the house of the LORD”

The New Testament nowhere teaches that we must assemble in large crowds. In fact, the early church didn’t meet in church buildings. They met “from house to house” in crowds that were small enough to fit inside a single home.

It may be a very long time before we can gather back together in large church building auditoriums. But we must not forget that Christian assemblies are critically important. When Christians can’t assemble, we miss out on numerous blessing and opportunities to encourage one another. To some extent, when we are apart, relationships will weaken, involvement will wane. It is likely that many weaker Christians will not survive this time of separation.

Any separation from the assembly must be as temporary as possible. Online worship services, social media, and text messaging are all great tools that can help alleviate the pain of separation. But there is no replacement for Christians assembling together.

If this coronavirus crisis drags on for longer than we expect, the time may come when we need to take some measured risks so that we can assemble – even if only in small groups in back yards. Christian assemblies are absolutely indispensable.

May we never take lightly the privilege of Christian assemblies. Let us pray together that the LORD will hasten the day when we will hear those word again: “Let us go to the house of the LORD”. I will be glad. Won’t you?

“The Cholera and the Christian Religion” by David Lipscomb

David Lipscomb, “The Cholera and the Christian Religion,” Gospel Advocate 15.28 (17 July 1873) 649-653

The object of giving to man the Christian religion is to educate him up to the full observance of the will of God, as Christ observed it.  Christ came to do his will even unto death that we might live according to the will of God. The great object of all God’s dealings with man is to induce him to give himself up unreservedly to do the will of God, to submit to his laws. Christ’s life was a perfect submission to the will of his Father in Heaven. The religion of Jesus Christ, then, proposes to reproduce in our lives the life of Christ, both in spirit and active labor. The reproduction in our lives of the life of Christ is the end before us, for our attainment. To this work, we pledge ourselves when we profess to become his followers. We say, we will, with the help of God, strive to live according to his precepts. His life was the practical exemplification of his precepts. He practiced the precepts he gave for the government of the world. He gave in percept for the government of his followers the rules of his own life.

To the extent that we follow his example, and thus practice his precepts, we form within us the living Christ. Paul to the Galatians, 4, 15, says,

My little children of whom I travail in birth again until Christ be formed in you.

Again Colos. 1, 27,

To whom God would make know what is the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles, which is Christ in you the hope of glory, whom we preach, warning every man and teaching every man in all wisdom, that we may present every man perfect in Christ Jesus.

We are not only brought into Christ, but Christ is also formed in us by a learning and compliance with his will. The unification between Christ and the disciples progresses from two different directions. The attainment of that unity with Christ is the Christian’s work in life.

Man is baptized out of himself, out of the world and its institutions, and is baptized into Christ that he may walk in him, obey him, enter into his spirit and that Christ may be formed in him. He thus becomes one with Christ, he is in him, he acts through him. The pledge that we solemnly make in our profession of faith in Christ and of our baptism into him is, that we will strive to reproduce his life before the world in our own lives. Hence we are epistles of Christ to the world, to be read of all men.

To reproduce the life of Christ in our own lives is to act as Christ would act, were he in our places. We thus become Christ’s representatives to the world. The solemn pledge of our lives is to act to the best of our ability in the various relationships that we occupy in the world, and in the exigencies and circumstances in which we are placed as Christ would act, were he here situated as we are.

A man with talent and social position confesses Christ, puts him on in baptism. He pledges to God most sacredly, before the world, he will use that talent or ability as Christ would use it. A man with one, two, ten or a hundred thousand dollars, as baptized out of himself into Christ, he pledges as a servant of Christ to try to act as Christ would, were he here on earth situated as this individual is, with his one, ten, or one hundred thousand dollars. That is the obligation, nothing less. (I have no utopian idea that Christ in such circumstances would divide his ten or one hundred thousand dollars among a set of lazy thriftless vagrants or spendthrifts, that would be no better off with it, than without it. But he would so use it as to relieve the pressing necessities of the suffering and to help the helpless, and teach all the way of industry, righteousness, goodness and thrift).

We came into the church with this pledge. We speak and act for Christ, to the world, in the place or stead of Christ. How do we act for him? We stand as Christ to the world. We are the body of Christ. In us he dwells. How do we represent him?

Recently the Cholera made a fearful visitation upon our people. It fell with especial severity upon the poor. It often first attacked the strong arm, the stay and reliance of the family. If not his, it struck down other members of his family so that he must needs cease to labor, in order to nurse them. Again all business ceased, and he could not get work, to support his family. In one family of industrious people, consisting of a father, mother and six industrious boys and girls, every one died save the mother, and she was prostrated. Another, a family—a nice, well-refined, well-raised family—consisted of a father, a carpenter by trade, a mother feeble with consumption, two daughters about grown, who sewed in a millinery establishment, a daughter and niece, about 12 each.

The father was taken ill and died within a few hours. The eldest daughter followed soon. The youngest daughter and niece lingered days between life and death. Only one daughter, a delicate girl was up, and she continually threatened with an attack; they too at times without a morsel of food, for sick or well.  Another case, among the colored people. The family in one house consisted of a father, mother, a married son with wife and infant, and two small children. The father, mother, son and son’s wife were all taken ill. The two males were buried. The son’s wife died on Friday night. The mother in bed sick, with the infant grandchild and one of her own small children sick. The body remained uncoffined in that house until Monday morning about ten o’clock. No one was present, able to go and report the death to the proper authorities. What think you of a cholera corpse, lying in a small room with three other sick persons in the sultry, hot weather from Friday June 20th to Monday, June 23rd?

This occurred a little out of the corporation, but in a thickly populated negro village. We mention these as specimen cases. They are extreme cases, but there were many approximations to them.

Now in view of these things and the wild panic that seized the population, what would Christ have done in the emergency? Had he been a resident of Nashville with ten, twenty or a hundred thousand dollars, what would he have done? What did he do in the person of his representatives here?

Would he have become panic stricken with fear—fear of death, and have used his means to get himself and family, with their fashionable and luxurious appendages out of danger, to some place of fashionable resort and pleasure, and left his poor brethren and neighbors to suffer and perish from neglect and want?

That is just what he did do in the person of many of his professed representatives. In the person of others he retired to the cool shades of his own luxurious and spacious city mansion elevated above the noxious miasms that destroyed the poor and unfortunate and left them to die, in want and neglect, without attention from him. Did you who so acted bear true testimony to the world for him for whom you profess to act? Was not your course a libel upon him and his character? How can those who so acted again profess to be his children?

The religion of our Savior was intended to make us like Christ, not only in our labor of love—of our self sacrifice for the good of others, but also in raising us above a timid, quaking fear of death. If it does not make us willing to brave death and spend out time and money for the good of our suffering fellow-creatures, offcast and sinners though they be, it does not raise us above a mere empty profession that leaves us scarcely less than hypocrites. The religion that does not induce us to do this essential work of a true Christian cannot save us. The rich often think that they cannot condescend to do the work of nursing and caring for the poor. It is degrading. It is hard I know, just precisely as hard as it is to enter the kingdom of heaven, not a whit more difficult to do the one than the other.

These fatal scourges, under God, become opportunities to show the superior excellence of the Christian religion, in giving true courage, love and self-sacrifice to its votaries. Alas what is it judged by the course of a majority of its professors? What do we better than others, in these days of sorrowful visitation?

Christian men and women should be prudent, and cautious in such surroundings. It is proper, we think, to send women and children, who are incapable of service to the sick, and are liable to the disease beyond its reach, when possible. Bur for able bodied Christian men and women to be flying from the city when their brethren and neighbors and fellow-creatures are suffering and dying for lack of attention and help, is such a contradiction in ideas, we know of no means of reconciling them. We think true Christians would come from the surrounding country and towns to the smitten community to aid the needy. I believe they would bear charmed lives in such a course. God would protect them. We heard Dr. Bowling remark during the greatest fatality, that men doing such a work never took disease and died. But if they did, the feeling and spirit out to be that of the three Hebrew children, when threatened with the fiery furnace, if they did not disobey God. The response was, If God will he can deliver. But whether he will or not, we will not disobey God.

Those who did quietly and calmly do their duty although in the midst of pestilence, want, suffering and death, found these the happiest days of their life. Days to which they can always look back with a feeling of true satisfaction. We trust we may all learn that Christian men and women must be possessed of true and calm courage—that they must be able to face death and find true happiness here, as well as a crown of joy hereafter, in doing their duty in all circumstances.

“My Kindom Is Not of This World” – Can You Prove It?

Jesus cited the fact that His disciples were not fighting for His self-defense as the proof that His kingdom was not of this world. When Jesus was facing trial before Pilate as a suspected Jewish revolutionary, Pilate gave Jesus a chance to explain His actions. In response, Jesus didn’t simply proclaim “My Kingdom is not of this world”; He pointed to the non-violence of His servants as proof to substantiate His claim.

Two thousand years later Jesus’s kingdom is still not of this world. But can we prove it like Jesus did? Can we still point to His disciple’s refusal to fight to bear witness to this fact?

Therefore Pilate entered again into the Praetorium, and summoned Jesus and said to Him, “Are You the King of the Jews?” Jesus answered, “Are you saying this on your own initiative, or did others tell you about Me? Pilate answered, “I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests delivered You to me; what have You done?” Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, then My servants would be fighting so that I would not be handed over to the Jews; but as it is, My Kingdom is not of this realm.” Therefore Pilate said to Him, “So You are a King?” Jesus answered, “You say correctly that I am a king. For this I have been born, and for this I have come into the world to testify to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears My voice.” – John 18.33-37

What Did Jesus Mean By “Not of This World”?

A commitment to nonviolence is at the heart of Jesus’s definition of His Kingdom. Of course the differences between the Kingdom of God and earthly kingdoms go far beyond whether or not the servants of those kingdoms fight or not. There are many ways in which the Kingdom Jesus preached is “not of this world.”

  • Their source of authority is different. Earthly kingdoms are led by men, while Jesus’s kingdom has its authority in heaven.
  • Their ability to influence the behavior of their citizens are different. Earthly kingdoms seek to reform behavior by use of outward force, while Jesus’s kingdom seeks to inwardly transform hearts.
  • Their boundaries are different. Earthly kingdoms are divided by geographic or racial boundaries, while Jesus’s kingdom is universal in nature.
  • Their source of power is different. Earthly kingdoms look to the power of the cross (or other weapons used to impose the threat of death), while Jesus’s kingdom looks to the power of the cross (i.e. the willingness to submit to death).

But of upmost importance, we must not miss the one key difference that Jesus actually points to in His answer.

  • Their response to evil is different. “If my kingdom were of this world, then My servants would have been fighting”

When Jesus used the phrase “of this world” He was not speaking of the geographic location of His kingdom, but rather He was referring to the world’s way of doing things. For example, Jesus said He came to testify against “the world” because its deeds are evil (Jn. 7.7). Elsewhere John would say, “Do not love the world nor the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him” (1 Jn. 2.15).

The contrast between “of this world” and “not of this world” is referring to a worldly way of doing things and a Godly way of doing things. The commitment of Jesus’s followers to nonviolence is at the heart of this difference.

Jesus Proved It. Can We?

Jesus didn’t just claim that His Kingdom was not of this world. He pointed to the observable fact that His servants were not fighting as proof.

If my kingdom were of this world, then My servants would be fighting so that I would not be handed over to the Jews; but as it is, My kingdom is not of this realm.

Just a short time earlier He has rebuked Peter when Peter attempted to come to his defense (Jn. 18.10-11).Had Peter, or any of the other disciples been fighting at the time, Jesus’ claim would have been completely meaningless. Can you image Pilate’s response if such had been the case? “What do you mean your Kingdom is not of this world!? Then how do you explain the actions of your disciples!?” But as it was, Jesus’ disciples were not fighting, and Jesus’s teaching stood with the weight of observable truth.

Love Your Enemies

If we are to call ourselves Christ-ians, we must love our enemies like Christ does. For the early church, loving enemies was not just a minor feature of their faith – it was one of the most distinguishing features of the early church.

Jesus’s command to love enemies must never be reduced to simply “be nice to your grumpy neighbors.” It must be a love that is as radical as Jesus’s love on the cross, and it must be at the very heart of who we are as Christians. If we are serious about our commitment to restoring New Testament Christianity in our own day, we must wrestle with the teachings and examples of Jesus and His apostles, even when it challenges us to step outside our comfort zones.

This is not to suggest that we can’t raise tough questions about the implications Jesus’s teachings. We are allowed to ask questions like “did Jesus really mean what I think he means?” and “did Jesus really intend for his teachings to be applied in this particular way in this particular situation?” And Christians may not always draw the same conclusions from their studies. We are allowed to wrestle with Jesus’ teachings.

But we must never simply ignore or dismiss Jesus’ teachings simply because we think of them as impractical or nonsensical. If we have given Jesus our faithful allegiance, we cannot and must not decide to disagree with his teachings.

But I Say To You…

You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.” But I say to you, do not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. If anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, let him have your coat also. Whoever forces you to go one mile, go with him two. Give to him who asks of you, and do not turn away from him who wants to borrow from you.

You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? If you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Therefore you are to be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect. – Matthew 5.38-48

Jesus quotes from Exodus 21:24, “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth.” Jesus read this law not as God’s endorsement for just violence, but as a text designed to limit violence. Jesus teaches the fulfillment of this law by saying “But I say to you, do not resist an evil person.

“Do not resist an evil person”? On the surface, such a command sounds very strange. Wasn’t the entire life and mission of Jesus one of resisting evil? Aren’t Christians supposed to resist evil and worldly ways?

What did Jesus mean when he said “do not resist an evil person”? The best explanation is the one Jesus gives with four examples.

  • “Whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also”
  • “If anyone wants to sue you and take away your shirt, let him have your coat also”
  • “Whoever forces you to go one mile, go with him two”
  • “Give to him who asks of you, and do not turn away from him who wants to borrow from you”

This is a form of resisting evil. Instead of responding with the “slap for slap, punch for punch, bullet for bullet” same kind of evil, Jesus commanded his disciples to resist the urge to respond in kind, thus putting an end to the cycle of violence. Jesus didn’t simply forbid unjust retaliation. The law did that. Jesus took it a step further by commanding his disciples not even to resist in kind.

How do Jesus’s disciples resist evil? By letting evil people win. That almost feels strange to put it that way. It’s backwards. It’s counterintuitive. But go back and read the four examples. In all four examples, Jesus instructs us to let the bad guy gain the upper hand.

What’s more, this is what Jesus showed us to do when he practiced what he preached. Jesus allowed his enemies to “win” by nailing him to the cross.

It should be noted that following this command is not weakness. Jesus was not “weak” when he hung on the cross. He could have easily commanded an army to ten thousand angels to judge the world and set him free. He was commanding us to let the bad guys win, even when we have the strength and power to defeat them.

Radical Enemy Love

Jesus commands us to love our enemies. He didn’t just command us to love some of our enemies. He didn’t just command us to love our enemies when it makes sense to so. He commanded us to love our enemies the way God, “who sends rain on the just and unjust”, loves them. We are to love the way God does by refusing to make a distinction between which enemies we are to love. He commanded us to love our enemies even in those times when it wouldn’t make sense to your average Gentile or tax collector.

Consider also this parallel passage from Luke:

But I say to you who hear, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. Whoever hits you on the cheek, offer him the other also; and whoever takes away your coat, do not withhold your shirt from him either. Give to everyone who asks of you, and whoever takes away what is yours, do not demand it back. Treat others the same way you want them to treat you. If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. If you lend to those from whom you expect to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners in order to receive back the same amount. But love you enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High; for He Himself is kind to ungrateful and evil men. Be merciful, just as your Father is Merciful.” – Luke 6:27-36

Could Jesus have been any clearer? The type of love Christians are to have is supposed to be more than the “common sense” love shown by the world around us. Also note that Jesus commands us to do good to our enemies, lest we think that we can somehow “love” our enemies while doing harm to them.

Not Just a Minor Feature of Christianity

Lest we think that this is just a somewhat strange, one-off command of Jesus, when we read our New Testament, it doesn’t take long to see this teaching repeated time and time again.

When Jesus was arrested in the garden, he commanded Peter to “Put your sword back into its place” (Mt. 26:52). Here Peter was drawing his sword against an enemy in defense of an innocent person, yet Jesus rebuked Peter.

Jesus cites the fact that his disciples were not fighting in his self-defense as proof that his kingdom was not of this world.

My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, then my servants would be fighting so that I would not be handed over to the Jews; but as it is, My kingdom is not of this world. – John 18.36

When Jesus was hanging on the cross, he prayed, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (Lk. 23.34). Without a doubt, Jesus loved his enemies.

“Yeah, but Jesus had to do that…”

“Sure, but Jesus’s death was different. He was the Messiah. That was the sacrifice for sins. Jesus had to let himself be killed. It had to happen as part of God’s plan.”

Without a doubt, Jesus was unique and His death was unique.

But even so, when Peter looked to the cross, he viewed Jesus’s response to evil as an example given for all of us to follow.

For you have been called for this purpose, since Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example for you to follow in His steps, who committed no sin, nor was any deceit found in his mouth, and while being reviled, He did not revile in return; while suffering, He uttered no threats, but kept entrusting Himself to Him who judges righteously. – 1 Peter 2.21-23

In Romans 12, Paul instructs the disciples to “Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay” says the Lord” (v. 19) Rather than judging them, Christians are to love and serve their enemies, attending to their needs (vs. 20-21).

In Hebrews 10:34 we read about how the early disciples joyfully accepted the plundering of their possessions, knowing that they possessed a better and more lasting possession.

In Acts we read about the disciple Stephen, who with his dying breath, prayed for his enemies as they were stoning him (Acts 7.60).

And then there’s the book of Revelation. Not only does Revelation ascribe our victory to the “slain lamb” (Rev. 5.6-14), but apparently Jesus was not the only one to gain victory through death.

Revelation 12 is filled with encouraging words, describing the victory of the saints:

Then I heard a loud voice in heaven, saying, “Now the salvation , and the power, and the kingdom of our God and the authority of His Christ have come, for the accuser of our brethren has been thrown down, he who accuses them before our God day and night. – Revelation 12:10

Salvation! Power! Kingdom! Authority! The enemy is destroyed! This is all great news!

But then in the very next verse, we are told how Jesus’ disciples gained this great victory.

And they overcame him because of the blood of the Lamb and because of the word of their testimony, and they did not love their life even when faced with death. – Revelation 12:11

Yes, we must overcome evil. But the way we overcome evil is by resisting the strong urge to gain the upper hand when our enemies mistreat us. Or as Paul puts it,

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. – Romans 12:21

Are We Really Expected To Believe Such Nonsense?

The idea of “letting others win” will always be mocked at by some. It will always be dismissed by others in exchange for resisting evil with a little more “common sense.”

But the earliest Christians believed Jesus actually meant what he said. They believed that they were supposed to love their enemies, even to the point of death. They actually believed that their death was a more powerful proof of the gospel than their life. The 2nd century Christian, Tertullian, is famously quoted as saying:

The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church. As often as we are mown down by you, the more we grow in numbers; the blood of Christians is the seed.

For the first couple of centuries immediately following the close of the New Testament, “Love your enemies” (Mt. 5.44) was quoted by 10 different authors in 26 places, making it the most cited verse from the New Testament. “Love your enemies” was to the early church what verses like “Acts 2:38” or “John 3:16” are for the church today. It was the very heartbeat of early Christianity. It is the teaching for which they were most known. It is what separated them from everyone else.

Those Hard Questions

“But what if someone attacks my family in the middle of the night?”

“But what if a Christian is a policeman or in the military?”

“But what about Hitler? Surely Christians shouldn’t have just let him win?”

Questions like these aren’t easy. They need to be wrestled with (with lots of love for one another in the process). If after wrestling with all the teachings of Jesus, you are convinced that you would be justified in killing an enemy as a very last resort, fine. Buy a gun if you want. Join the military if your conscience compels you. Maybe you’re right. Maybe there is an argument that can be made to justify violence in some extreme situations.

But that’s not the point.

The point is, when it’s all said and done, and those questions have been asked, and those discussions have been had, “loving your enemies” must still be at the very heart of who we are as Christians. When other people hear “Oh, you’re a Christian”, do they think “You’re one of those crazy people who loves their enemies no matter what”? If we’re not known for loving enemies in a way that seems strange to the world around us, we’re not following the teachings and example of Jesus.

Beloved, Jesus expects us to love our enemies. We must love our enemies.

Exodus 22:2 and the Attacker at the Door

A few months ago, I posted an article in which I wrestled with the question “what would you do if someone attacked your family?” (you can read it here). As could be expected, the article prompted lots of interesting discussions, and not everybody agreed on the best way a Christian should handle such a challenging situation.

On one hand, Christians are commanded to love their enemies and do good to them (Mt. 5.38-48; Lk. 6.27-37; Rom. 12.14-21; 1 Thess. 5.15; 1 Pet. 2.21-23; 3.9). On the other hand, God “hates hands that shed innocent blood” (Prov. 6.17), and almost all of us would instinctively feel justified in using violence to protect our loved ones if we absolutely had to. Yes, we must take Jesus’ commands to love our enemies seriously, but surely we also have the responsibility to protect innocent people when it is in our power to do so. It’s not a simple problem.

It doesn’t bother me when I see Christians disagree with one another. And it doesn’t bother me to hear Christians raising hard questions and thoughtful objections to what they think are flawed positions. But what does bother me is when Christians simply “pick a side” and do their best to read their opinions into scripture rather than seriously trying to study the text. What does bother me is when Christians elevate “common sense” or “effectiveness” over faithful allegiance to Jesus and his teachings.

The Exodus 22:2 Question

In response to my article, one reader responded by pointing to Exodus 22:2. He suggested that Exodus 22:2 should quite simply resolve the supposed “attacker at the door” dilemma. And here’s the thing: he might be right. The scripture reads,

If the thief is caught while breaking in and is struck so that he dies, there will be no bloodguiltiness on his account. – Exodus 22.2

The verse seems pretty straightforward, and it addresses the home invader scenario almost perfectly. Notice carefully:

  1. The bad guy attacks
  2. The good guy catches bad guy and kills him
  3. The good guy is not guilty of the home invader’s blood. Case closed.

Maybe it really is that simple. Maybe bringing up all this “love your enemy” stuff really is reading more into the commands of Jesus than Jesus ever intended. It certainly seems that way.

At least until you read the next verse…

Don’t Forget About Exodus 22:3

But if the sun has risen on him, there will be bloodguiltiness on his account. He shall surely make restitution; if he owns nothing, then he shall be sold for his theft. – Exodus 22:3

In verse three we have almost the exact same scenario as verse two. Observe:

  1. The bad guy attacks
  2. The good guy catches bad guy and kills him

But this time, the good guy is guilty. The only difference between the two scenarios is that “the sun has risen on him.” In other words, in home invasion happened during broad daylight.

Why are the two scenarios treated differently? What difference does it make whether the home invasion happened during the day or the night? Why is the homeowner free from guilt at night, but guilty during the day?

The answer is this: we don’t know for certain.

Perhaps the difference is that during the daytime the homeowner could see and know exactly what was happening, and thus verse three refers to an intentional killing, while at night the killing would be unintentional since the homeowner couldn’t clearly see the attacker. Maybe the “daytime” implies that the neighbors would be wide awake and the homeowner could call for help, while a night time invasion implies a true “worst case scenario” where “kill or be killed” are literally the only two literal options available for the homeowner. Or maybe the issue is self-defense. Maybe during the daytime the thief is more likely only interested in taking things, while a night time invasion implies a more direct danger to someone’s family.

The problem is that the text never exactly tells us why the two cases should be treated differently. It simply tells us that the two cases are to be treated differently. I suppose we could do a google search, or consult several commentaries, and pick out whichever proposed explanation we like the best. But we need to be careful. Since the text doesn’t give us an explanation, even scholarly commentators are, to some extent, guessing. Maybe they have educated guesses, but since the text is silent, we just can’t be certain.

How Do We Apply Old Testament Laws?

Not only do we need to wrestle through the complications presented by verse three, but we also must wrestle with the hermeneutical question of how God expects Christians to understand and apply these Old Testament laws now that the old law has been fulfilled.

Does God expect us to apply these laws as if they were written for us? If we can use Exodus 22:2 as justification to kill an attacker at the door, should we also sell daytime attackers into slavery as Exodus 22:3 instructs? Should we also follow Exodus 22:16-17 which says that if someone has sex with a virgin then they must marry her or pay her dad a bride-price for her? Should we also put children to death when they curse their father or mother as is commanded in the previous chapter (21:17)?

We should remember that while the law of Moses is certainly God’s inspired word, and while it certainly demonstrates God’s wisdom (especially when compared with the ethical practices of Israel’s ancient near eastern neighbors), it was never written to establish God’s ideal law for all nations at all times.  For example, God’s law never eliminated slavery, but it did establish a more humane attitude and more just treatment of slaves. This does not imply that slavery was God’s ideal, but rather it pointed Israel towards God’s ideal by improving upon the slavery practices of their culture.

For another example, consider the way the Law of Moses protected divorced women by requiring that their husbands write them a certificate of divorce. Divorce was never God’s ideal, but “because of hardness of heart” (Mt. 19.8) God permitted it.

When we read Exodus 22:2-3 in this same light, it would suggest that the law was not necessarily written to place God’s stamp of approval on killing home invaders at night. Instead, it seems as if this law, like all the others in the surrounding context, were written to point Israel towards a more loving and gracious treatment of their enemies by placing restrictions on when an attacker could be killed.

Interestingly, this command is mentioned only fourteen verses after the “eye for an eye” and a “tooth for a tooth” command (Ex. 21.24), the very command that Jesus fulfilled when he taught:, “Do not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also” (Mt. 5.39).

If Jesus understood “eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth” as pointing towards a day when God’s children would love their enemies and resist the urge to retaliate, how do we think Jesus would want His disciples to apply Exodus 22.2-3? By blowing an attacker’s brains out without giving it a second thought?

The Importance of Honest and Humble Study

Perhaps there is a biblical defense for killing an attacker in a worst case scenario. Perhaps a Christian can feel justified in killing an attacker, even while sincerely seeking to uphold Jesus’s teachings and examples about how we are to treat our enemies. Perhaps a sound biblical argument can be made for lethal force, and perhaps Exodus 22:2, when handled humbly and responsibly, can somehow be woven into that defense.

But to simply throw out Exodus 22:2 as a proof text without even attempting to wrestle with the many questions surrounding this verse is irresponsible. To use Exodus 22:2 irresponsibly can actually weaken someone’s case as it gives the impression that they are simply trying to read their opinion back into scripture rather than really trying to study and draw out what the text really teaches.

Let’s never back away from challenging questions about difficult verses. But let’s be careful to approach those questions humbly and honestly, and most importantly, with faithful allegiance to Jesus.

How The Early Church Approached Entertainment

I have given them Your word; and the world has hated them, because they are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but to keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. Sanctify them in the truth; Your word is truth. – John 17.14-17

Christianity requires separation from the world. From the very beginning, Christians were urged to keep themselves “unstained by the world” (Jas. 1.27), to avoid “friendship with the world” (Jas. 4.4), not to be “conformed to this world” (Rom. 12.2). John urged Christians not to “love the world or the things in the world” (1 John 2.15-16).

Therefore when it comes to our entertainment choices, almost all Christians agree that to at least some extent, Christians should be different from the world.

Christians often disagree about where to “draw the line”. “How much bad language and content can be in a movie before it becomes inappropriate for a Christian?”  “How ‘worldly’ does a party need to be before it before a Christians can no longer go?” These type of questions can sometimes be tricky. That is why it is worthwhile to consider thoughts from the early Christians.

By “early Christians” I am referring to Christians prior to the year 313 AD, the year the Emperor Constantine ended the persecution of Christianity. Going from a persecuted religion to a government-endorsed religion greatly lessened the degree to which Christians remained separate from the world.

Just like Christians from all generations, these early Christians were flawed. Sometimes they made mistakes. They were certainly capable of “drawing the line” in the wrong places. They wrote uninspired words, and we are free to disagree with them. But they were very sincere. Some of these early Christians personally knew the apostles, and they all personally knew the first generation of Christians. When it comes to questions of entertainment, we would be wise to at least consider the points they raise.

The Early Christians Were Not Opposed to Entertainment

The early Christians were not opposed to having fun and enjoying life.  But they did have different values from the world around them, and thus they found different kinds of things to be entertaining.

For example, consider the words of Tertullian (160-220 AD), one of the most prolific and well respected early Christian writers:

We renounce all your spectacles, as strongly as we renounce the matters originating them, which we know were conceived of superstition, when we give up the very things which are the basis of their representations. Among us nothing is ever said, or seen, or heard, which has anything in common with the madness of the circus, the immodesty of the theater, the atrocities of the arena, the useless exercises of the wrestling-ground. Why do you take offense at us because we differ from you in regard to your pleasures? If we will not partake of your enjoyments, the loss is ours, if there be loss in the case, not yours. We reject what pleases you. You, on the other hand, have no taste for what is our delight. – Apology, chapter 38

For clarification, when Tertullian speaks of “circuses”, he isn’t referring to clowns and acrobats, but to chariot races. He objected to chariot races because of how dangerous they were and because of the madness of the crowds that attended such events.

According to Tertullian, Christians were not opposed to finding certain things delightful and entertaining. What made Christians different was their consideration of the content of the entertainment. Christians did not find violence, idolatry, or immorality delightful, therefore they refused entertainment based upon these vices. Christians are delighted by different kind of things – things which the world may or may not recognize as entertaining.

The Importance of Considering Content

Athenagoras (133-190 AD) pointed to the fact that it would be hypocritical to support the death penalty or abortion while refusing to even enjoy violent entertainment such as gladiator events.

Who does not reckon among the things of greatest interest the contests of the gladiators and wild beasts, especially those which are given by you? But we, deeming that to see a man put to death is much the same as killing him, have abjured such spectacles. How, then, when we do not even look on, lest we should contract guilt and pollution, can we put people to death? – A Plea for New Christians, Chapter 35

For modern Christians, it can often seem very easy to separate the things we watch from the things we actually support. Yet for at least some of the early Christians, they refused to make such a separation. For Athenagoras, to see be entertained by watching a man be put to death was the moral equivalent of actually killing him.

Similarly, Theophilus (died in 183 AD) believed that the things we watch and hear can cause defilement.

We are forbidden even to witness the shows of gladiators, so that we do not become partakers and abettors of murders. Nor may we see the other spectacles, lest our eyes and ears be defiled, participating in the utterances they sing there.

For if one should speak of cannibalism, in these spectacles the children of Theyestes and Terus are eaten. As for adultery – both in the case of men and gods… this is made the subject of their dramas.

But far be it from Christians to conceive any such deeds. For with them temperance dwells, self-restraint is practiced, monogamy is observed, chastity is guarded, iniquity exterminated, sin extirpated, righteousness exercised, law administered, worship performed, God acknowledged. Truth governs, grace guards, peace screens them. The holy word guides, wisdom teaches, life directs, God reigns. – To Autolycus, III:15

Theophilus believed the things we watch and hear can defile us. Since Christians are of a different character, they refused to be entertained by violent, immoral, idolatrous, or adulterous entertainment.

Avoiding Hypocrisy

Around the year 200 AD, Tertullian wrote a treatise titled “De Spectaculis”, also known as “The Shows”, in which he argued that entertainment can be an offense to God. One of Tertullian’s chief concerns was the hypocrisy of those who typically avoid worldly passions, while continuing to expose themselves to those very same worldly passions through their entertainment choices.

The father who carefully protects and guards his virgin daughter’s ears from every polluting word, takes her to the theater himself, exposing her to all its vile words and attitudes. – “The Shows”, Chapter 21

Evangelistic Concerns

Closely related to Tertullian’s concerns about hypocrisy are his concerns about how a Christian’s entertainment choices impacts the influence on others.

We should have no connection with the things which we abjure, whether in deed or word, whether by looking on them or looking forward to them; but do we not abjure and rescind that baptismal pledge, when we cease to bear its testimony? Does it then remain for us to apply to the heathen themselves. Let them tell us, then, whether it is right in Christians to frequent the show. Why, the rejection of these amusements is the chief sign to them that a man has adopted the Christian faith. If any one, then, puts away the faith’s distinctive badge, he is plainly guilty of denying it. What hope can you possibly retain in regard to a man who does that? When you go over to the enemy’s camp, you throw down your arms, desert the standards and the oath of allegiance to your chief: you cast in your lot for life or death with your new friends. – “The Shows”, Chapter 24

The early Christians didn’t purposefully seek to be odd or different, but when they refused entertainment with immoral content, people took notice. They saw their different choices, and they wondered “Hmm… I wonder if so-and-so is a Christian now.”

The opposite was also true. When Christians stopped rejecting certain types of entertainment they lost their badge of distinctiveness. According to Tertullian, this was the equivalent of forsaking their baptism and joining up with the enemy.

Entertainment’s Influence

Cyprian (200-258 AD) also believed that entertainment was extremely influential. Through entertainment, we are introduced to thoughts – thoughts of sinful things which have been done, or could possibly be done, and we learn from what we see.

In the theaters also you will behold what may well cause you grief and shame. It is the tragic buskin which relates in verse the crimes of ancient days. The old horrors of parricide and incest are unfolded in action calculated to express the image of the truth, so that, as the ages pass by, any crime that was formerly committed may not be forgotten. Each generation is reminded by what it hears, that whatever has once been done may be done again. Crimes never die out by the lapse of ages; wickedness is never abolished by process of time; impiety is never buried in oblivion. Things which have now ceased to be actual deeds of vice become examples. In the mimes, moreover, by teaching of infamies, the spectator is attracted either to reconsider what he may have done in secret, or to hear what he may do. Adultery is learned while it is seen; and while the mischief having public authority panders to vices, the matron, who perchance had gone to the spectacle a modest woman, returns from it immodest. – Cyprian’s Epistle 1.8

Entertainment Matters

It should be noted that during this time there was never any such thing as plays or dramas that didn’t contain things such as pagan mythology and idolatry, sexual immorality, or murder. There were no such things as chariot races or sporting events that did not glorify idolatry and violence. The primary concern of the early Christians was avoiding the immoral content of entertainment rather than avoiding entertainment for its own sake.

It should also be noted that the early church didn’t have any mandated rules when it came to entertainment. They didn’t put anybody out of the church if they “drew the line” in a different place and decided to attend a play or a sporting event. But they did continually emphasize the importance of avoiding immoral influences.

Were these early Christians right? Did they did they draw the lines in the right places? Maybe or maybe not. They were not inspired, and we are certainly free to disagree with them. But they also made some really good (and challenging) points that we should all consider. It is so easy to make moral compromises for the sake of entertainment. Yet there is no reason why Christians should not continue to strive to be different from the world, even when it comes to our entertainment.

Why We Don’t Sing the “Battle Hymn of the Republic”

When I was younger, I was taught that the most important part of our worship in song wasn’t the notes, but rather the words. When we sing to God, we are also speaking to and teaching one another (Eph. 5.19; Col. 3.16). We should be able to “sing with the mind” (1 Cor. 14.15).

Every Sunday, our worship is filled with wonderful, beautiful, theologically rich hymns which remind us of biblical truths.  But growing up in the church, there was one song that we didn’t sing. In fact, we avoided it. We never sang “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” It’s not that we didn’t know the song (if you know the tune of “Booster”, you know the song). But rather, we avoided it because of its anti-Christian message.

Of course, there are some who remain ignorant of the song’s history and its anti-Christian theology. There have been rare occasions (usually near a patriotic holiday) where I’ve heard this song led in worship. But those occasions are rare. And even when the song is led, there are usually at least a handful of Christians throughout the auditorium standing there in awkward silence.

It is important to pay attention to the message we teach with our songs. That’s why many Christians don’t sing the “Battle Hymn.”

The Origins of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic”

(Source: Chapter 8 of Julia Ward Howe’s biography. You can read it here.)

The Battle Hymn of the Republic was written in 1861 by a northern political activist, Julia Ward Howe. As an abolitionist, she was convinced that the Union cause was moral and righteous, and thus felt justified in supporting the destruction of her southern neighbors.

Returning from a visit to Washington in 1861, her carriage was delayed by marching regiments of Union soldiers. To pass the time, she and her companions sang several war songs which were popular at the time. Among them was a song called “John Brown’s Body”.

John Brown’s body lied a-moulding in the grave,
His soul is marching on!

The tune was catchy, and it wasn’t long until the marching soldiers joined in singing with her. One of her friends then suggested to her, “Mrs. Howe, why do you not write some good words for that stirring tune?”

Early the following morning the following lyrics came to her:

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord;
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored
He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword;
His truth is marching on.

After the song was published in 1862, it quickly found its way into military camps, and was frequently sung in exhortation before battles, and was sung joyously upon the news of military victories. In describing why she had written the song, Howe said:

Something seems to say to me, “You would be glad to serve, but you cannot help anyone; you have nothing to give, and there is nothing for you to do.” Yet, because of my sincere desire, a word was given to me to say, which did strengthen the hearts of those who fought in the field and of those who languished in the prison.

Despite originating during the war, it is important to realize that opposition to singing this “hymn” has nothing to do with who we think was right or wrong during the war. It has everything to do with the anti-Christian message of the song.

The Theology of the “Battle Hymn”

Like many who lived in the 19th century, Howe was very familiar with the Bible. Therefore the song is filled with language and imagery from Scripture. The song certainly has a spiritual message, but the message is not a Christian message.

The “Battle Hymn of the Republic” is religious war propaganda. It twists and turns the biblical imagery for the purpose of “strengthening the hearts” of union soldiers as they fought and killed their southern neighbors. Far from being a Christian hymn, the “Battle Hymn” is anti-Christian to the core.

Revelation 19 and the Coming of the Lord

The phrase “coming of the Lord” is understood to refer to the 2nd coming of Christ (1 Thess. 4.15; Jas. 5.7-8). Despite the fact that the phrase “coming of the Lord” never appears in the book of Revelation, most of the songs images are drawn from Revelation 19.

And I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse, and He who sat on it is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness He judges and wages war. His eyes are a flame of fire, and on His head are many diadems; and He has a name written on Him which not one knows except Himself. He is clothed with a robe dipped in blood, and His name is called The Word of God. And the armies which are in heaven, clothed in fine linen, white and clean, were following Him on white horses. From His mouth comes a sharp sword, so that with it He may strike down the nations, and He will rule them with a rod of iron; and He treads the wine press of the fierce wrath of God, the Almighty. And on His robe and on His thigh He has a name written, “King of kings, and Lord of lords.” – Rev. 19.11-16

In this passage, violence, war, and judgment seem to accompany the appearance of Christ, who arrives on a white horse (a common image used for Roman military conquerors). The passage describes Jesus in a blood-drenched robe treading out the “wine press of the fierce wrath of God.” Howe poetically uses the image to describe the Lord “Trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored.”

The problem is that Howe wrote this lyric, not for the purpose of trusting in the Lord’s judgment, but rather for the purpose of giving Union troops license to kill their southern enemies. Americans have continually heard this popular patriotic song exactly as it was intended by Howe to be understood – as a validation for Americans to destroy enemies whom they judge as being immoral.

As Howe wrote the following verses with Union soldiers in mind, seeking to “offer service to their cause”, even the triumph of the gospel and the birth of Christ and twisted into justification for war.

I have read a fiery gospel writ in burnished rows of steel;
“As ye deal with my contemners, so with you my grace shall deal”
Let the Hero, born of woman, crush the serpent with his heel,
Since God is marching on!

He has sounded forth the trumpet that shall never sound retreat
He is sifting out the hearts of men before his judgment seat,
O be swift, my soul, to answer Him, Be jubilant, my feet!
Our God is marching on!

In the beauty of the lilies, Christ was born across the sea,
With a glory in his bosom that transfigures you and me;
As he died to make men holy, let us die to make men free,
While God is marching on!

John’s Use of Military Imagery

The Bible is no stranger to using military imagery (1 Tim. 1.18; 2 Tim. 2.3), and Revelation 19 is no exception. But Julia Ward Howe and John of Patmos use military imagery to opposite ends.

Howe used the military imagery of Revelation 19 to “strengthen the hearts” of union soldiers as they marched into battle against their enemies. John used Roman military imagery to show that Christ (as opposed to Roman military leaders) will ultimately win the day. If we are looking for a heroic conqueror on a white horse to ride in and save the day, John doesn’t want for us to look for a Roman military leader, a Union General, or any other military hero. He wants us to look to Christ.

By the time Revelation was written, the “sword” was already commonly understood by Christians as a figure of the word of God (Eph. 6.17; Heb. 4.12). Earlier in the book of Revelation, Christ is described as having a sword coming out of his mouth, strongly reinforcing this image (Rev. 1.16). The fact that Revelation 19 describes the sword coming out of Jesus’ mouth indicates that the “weapon” John envisions is not the “burnished rows of steel”, but rather the God’s word.

John then describes how the sword is used to strike down the nations and rule them with a rod of iron. This is quite the opposite of Howe’s usage of Revelation’s imagery to “strengthen the hearts of those who fought” for her nation. In Revelation 19, the nations are not the victors. Rather the nations, having been deceived by Babylon (Rev. 18.23), are the ones who are defeated by the triumphant word of God.

The Victory of the Lamb

The book of Revelation not only assures us of Christ’s victory, it also gives us understanding as to how God destroys evil.

Amid all the violence and evil in the world, Revelation 5 gives good news. The victorious Lion of Judah is here to fight for us! But the surprising thing is that when John turns around to see the Lion, He looks like a slain Lamb.

“And I saw between the throne (with the four living creatures) and the elders a Lamb standing, as if slain.” (Rev. 5.6)

Significantly, a similar surprise is seen in the Revelation 19 battle scene. A close reading will show that the blood on Christ’s garment was not that of his enemies. Christ is described as being covered in blood (v. 13) before the enemies are struck down (v. 15). The blood is not that of His enemies. It is His own blood.

At the conclusion of Jesus’s conquest, He bears a new title: “King of kings and Lord of lords” (v. 16). Jesus replaces every other king, lord, or other political power which may demand our allegiance. Immediately after the conquest, the kings, the military commanders, the mighty men, the horses are their riders are all defeated (vs. 17-18).

Julia Ward Howe wrote the Battle Hymn to strengthen others in their allegiance to the Union. Revelation 19 challenges us to give our allegiance to Him who is Faithful and True as opposed to giving our allegiance to the nations of this earth with their kings and military conquerors. The “Battle Hymn” uses the same images, but to a completely opposite end.

Choose Your Side

Though the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” is filled with scriptural images, it has nothing to do with following Jesus. This is why many Christians don’t sing the “Battle Hymn”. We don’t sing the “Battle Hymn”, because we have decided to give our allegiance and worship to Christ alone, rejecting allegiance to any other defeated king, lord, or political entity.