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.

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.

What Would You Do If Someone Attacked Your Family?

“You blow their heads off. Next question.” At least that’s how most would answer.

But for pacifists, this question poses the ultimate dilemma. Either they are exposed as being inconsistent in their stance against violence, or if they maintain their consistency and refuse to protect their loved ones, they are exposed as unloving or even immoral.

I don’t consider myself a true pacifist. My only aim is to be a faithful disciple of Jesus. But regardless of your stance on pacifism, if you are a Christian you need to think carefully about the implications of your commitment to follow Jesus even in the most extreme scenarios.

The Dilemma For a Christian

Can a disciple of Jesus kill an attacker at the door? Maybe (or maybe not). But before joining in with the masses and yelling “shoot him!” we would be wise to pause consider the implication of our answer – not as a pacifist, but as a Christian.

If a Christian has gotten to the point where “blow his head off!” is seen as the only possible response to the threat of violence, there is a deep problem. How has our love for our enemies gone so far astray that we could envision killing them without even batting an eye or even allowing for the slightest grief to enter our minds? How have we become so blind to the love of God that we would not strive to find another possible way out of the scenario? (cf. Rom. 5.7-10).

Yes, perhaps we would be completely justified in killing the attacker. But first, we need to at least pause long enough and think about how Christians are commanded to treat their enemies, and how these commands might impact our response.

Christians are never to repay evil with evil (Rom. 12.17; cf. 1 Thess. 5.15; 1 Pet. 3.9). Jesus commanded:

“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.” – Matthew 5.39

Not only are we commanded to love our enemies, we’re specifically commanded to “do good to them” (Lk. 6.27-28).

What’s more, there’s never an exception clause. Jesus never said anything like “love your enemies, unless a loved one is threatened” or “do good to your enemies, but use some common sense too.” He simply commanded us to love them. Period. Don’t resist them. Period. Do good to them. Period.

I suppose Jesus could have assumed that there would be times when His “love your enemy” commands would not apply, and perhaps He just didn’t feel the need to spell out all the exceptions to the rule. But if there are exceptions, they are never explicitly spelled out in Scripture.

On the surface “love your enemy” seems simple enough.  But when it comes to protecting innocent loved ones from death, almost all of us would instinctively feel justified in using violence if we absolutely had to.

So pacifists aren’t the only ones with a dilemma. As Christians, we are required to love our enemies and do good to them, and yet, surely we must protect innocent people when it is in our power to do so.

Don’t Settle for Bad Proof Texts

Christians have sought to resolve this dilemma in various ways. One option is to turn to various Old Testament passages, such as those which authorize the death penalty (Ex. 21.12-14) or command the destruction of enemies (Deut. 20.16-17). Others may turn to various New Testament passages, such as when Jesus used a whip in the temple (Mt. 21.12-17) or when Jesus commanded his disciples to buy a sword (Lk. 22.36), or when Paul wrote that governments “do not bear the sword in vain” (Rom. 13.4) to argue that violence is acceptable to God.

These are good points. None of these objections should be flippantly dismissed. They all deserve to be explored in depth and followed to their logical conclusions. But as we do so, we must be careful not to twist scripture away from its context or stretch scriptures beyond their intended purposes. If we aren’t careful, we can get so focused on finding justification for violence that we can overlook how many of these proof texts are actually contained within contexts which oppose violence.

My point here isn’t to answer every objection, but simply to encourage us to be careful and honest with the text. If you want to explore any of these arguments in more depth, I encourage you to consider these articles I’ve written previously.

Did Jesus Really Mean “Don’t Resist an Evildoer”?

Another approach is to point out that when Jesus said “do not resist an evildoer”, the word for “resist” doesn’t refer to any and all types of resistance, but rather refers specifically to violent resistance. Therefore Jesus wasn’t implying that His disciples should just passively allow evil to take place, but only condemns responding to violence with more violence.

This argument certainly helps. For example, in most real life “attacker at the door” scenarios, there would likely be other non-violent ways to protect a loved one. You could run. You could hide. You could offer to pacify the attacker by complying and giving him money or whatever he wants. You could pray that God would somehow providentially intervene and protect your family (and please, let’s not scoff at prayer as if it would never work. See James 5.16). You might even consider non-lethal resistance, such as tackling the guy to eliminate further threat.

But while this might help soften the dilemma, it doesn’t completely solve it either. Usually the “attacker at the door” question is designed as a hypothetical scenario, where “kill or be killed” are literally the only two options. To argue for another, more peaceful way out is, in a sense, dodging the true intent of the question. We are still left to wrestle with the full weight of the hypothetical worst case scenario.

Who Is My Enemy?

Another option is to convince ourselves that when Jesus wasn’t referring to our enemies. He wasn’t referring to the attacker at the door. He must have been referring to some other kind of enemy – a less serious enemy – one who isn’t threatening the lives of innocent people. Therefore we should feel completely justified in killing the attacker at the door.

The problem is that this approach ultimately reduces Jesus’s enemy-loving commands to “love your enemies when it makes sense to you.”  Yet the whole point of Jesus’s command to love our enemies is to instruct His disciples to be radically different from others.

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. – Luke 6.32-33

Everyone hates those who threaten them or want to kill their loved ones. The point of the command isn’t just to love our enemies when it makes sense to us. It is to challenge us to love them in those times when it doesn’t make common sense to love them.

What’s more, Jesus taught at a time when the Jews viewed Romans as foreign invaders – enemies who were known to crucify Jews just simply to flex their muscles and remind them who was in charge. They viewed them as enemies precisely because they felt like their loved ones were threatened. Far from being an exception to the rule, the attacker at the door is almost a perfect representation of the kind of enemy Jesus had in mind.

The Lesser of Two Evils

The “lesser of two evils” argument only works in a true worst case scenario, where choosing not to kill the attacker at the door is essentially a choice to do harm to a loved one. For example, we may agree that it is wrong to kill an enemy, but at the same time, it would be wrong to allow an innocent person to suffer when it is in our power to prevent it. We are ultimately left with only two choices: either we do good to our enemy (Lk. 6.27) or we love our neighbor (Mt. 22.39). Like a doctor faced with the choice of either amputating a leg, or allowing the patient to die, the right choice would be the lesser of two evils.

Some will argue against the lesser of two evils argument, pointing out that it puts too much confidence in our own judgments. Instead of choosing the lesser of two evils, we should simply do good to our enemies, and trust that somehow God will use our obedience for good.

Others will point to Biblical examples of faith where people chose the lesser of two evils. For example, the Hebrew midwives were willing to lie in order to protect Hebrew babies (Ex. 1.15-21), and Rahab lied to protect the Israelites spies (Josh. 2.1-21; cf. Heb. 11.31).

Does the “lesser of two evils” argument give us an exception to the rule?  This is a tough one. I can see both sides of the argument. But we should at least recognize how a faithful Christian might feel justified killing an attacker at the door despite their sincere commitment to be faithful to Jesus’s teachings.

But even so, the “lesser of two evils” argument concedes that killing an enemy is, as a general rule, an evil. This argument cannot, and must not be used to dismiss or de-radicalize Jesus’s teachings.

Faithfulness not Effectiveness

However we answer the question about the attacker at the door, we must always remember that our number one goal is not common sense, not safety, not effectiveness, but faithfulness.

What if there is an exception to the rule? What if we can be fully justified in killing an attacker at the door? If so, we must recognize an exception to the rule for what it is – an exception to the rule. We must never use the exception to replace the rule itself.

As we seek to follow Jesus there may be difficult questions and difficult scenarios we have to wrestle with. But these scenarios do not change the overall tone of Jesus’ teachings, nor should they be the primary focus of our thinking when it comes to how we think about our enemies.

So let’s not lose focus. Let’s strive to love our enemies in a way that is radically different from the world around us every single day. And then, if heaven forbid, we are ever faced with an attacker at the door, let’s strive to have the courage and wisdom to love our enemy even then.

Alexander Campbell’s Eight Reasons for Opposing War

Shortly after the close of the Mexican-American War in 1848, Alexander Campbell delivered his “Address on War” (you can read it in its entirety here). At the conclusion of his address, Campbell summarized eight reasons why he believed that Christians should be opposed to warfare.

  1. The Innocent Suffer

The right to take away the life of the murderer does not of itself warrant war, inasmuch as in that case none but the guilty suffer, whereas in war the innocent suffer not only with, but often without, the guilty. The guilty generally make the war and the innocent suffer from its consequences.

Campbell believed the Bible authorized taking away the life of murderers. “Whoever sheds man’s blood, by man his blood shall be shed” (Gen. 9.6). He did not, however, believe that capital punishment authorized Christians to go to war. In fact, Campbell believed that the “most convincing argument against a Christian becoming a soldier may be drawn from the fact that he fights against an innocent person.”

“Politicians, merchants, knaves, and princes” are usually the ones who make war, but “the soldiers on either side have no enmity against the soldiers on the other side, because with them they have no quarrel.” Campbell observed that opposing soldiers were to meet each other “in any other field, in their citizen dress, other than in battle array, they would probably have not only inquired about the welfare of each other, but would have tendered to each other their assistance if called for.”

These reflections led Campbell to ask,

How could a Christian man thus volunteer his services, or hire himself out for so paltry a sum, or for any sum, to kill his brother man who never offended him in word or deed?

  1. Old Testament Wars Do Not Authorize Christians to Go To War

The right given to the Jews to wage war is not vouchsafed to any other nations, for they were under a theocracy, and were God’s sheriff to punish nations; consequently no Christian can argue from the wars of the Jews in justification or in extenuation of the wars of Christendom. The Jews had a Divine precept and authority; no existing nation can produce such a warrant.

Campbell recognized that the Old Testament “certainly commended and authorized war among the Jews”, yet he believed it was important to observe that “He gave authority, however, to one family or nation, whose God and King he assumed to be.” In other words, the Jews were “under His own special direction and authority.” Therefore,

What the God of Abraham did by Abraham, by Jacob, or by any of his sons, as the moral Governor of the world, before He gave up the scepter and the crown to His Son Jesus Christ, is of no binding authority now.

Christianity is based upon the observation that “Jesus Christ is now the Lord and King of both earth and heaven.” We are now under “the new administration of the universe.” Therefore, when it comes to the question of war, we must look to the teachings of Jesus for authority to go to war.

  1. The Messiah’s Kingdom Was Prophesied As Peaceful

The prophecies clearly indicate that the Messiah himself would be “the Prince of Peace” and that under his reign “wars should cease” and “nations study it no more.

Campbell wrote, “His kingdom neither came nor stands by the sword.” He believed the the “native influence and tendency of the Christian institution” could be seen by reading the words of the prophets when they first announced the coming of the kingdom. He reflected on passages such as Isaiah 2.4:

And He will judge between the nations,
And will render decisions for many peoples;
And they will hammer their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will not lift up sword against nations,
And never again will they learn war.

The prophet Micah used almost the same words as Isaiah when he wrote:

For from Zion will go forth the law,
Every word of the LORD from Jerusalem.
And He will judge between many peoples
And render decisions for the mighty, distant nations.
They will hammer their swords into plowshares
And their spears into pruning hoocks;
Nation will not lift up sword against nation,
And never again will they train for war.
Each of them will sit under his vine
And under his fig tree,
With no one to make them afraid,
For the mouth of the LORD of hosts has spoken.
– Micah 4:2-4

Upon reading such prophecies, Campbell concluded that “the spirit of Christianity, then, is essentially pacific.”

  1. The Gospel Produces “Peace on Earth”

Reflecting on Luke 2.14, when the heavenly hosts sang in praise after the Savior’s birth, Campbell observed:

The gospel, as first announced by the angels, is a message which results in producing “peace on earth and good will among men.”

  1. The Precepts of Christianity Positively Inhibit War

The precepts of Christianity positively inhibit war – by showing that “wars and fightings come from men’s lusts” and evil passions, and by commanding Christians to “follow peace with all men.

Not only is the spirit of Christianity peaceful, but so is the actual letter of it. Campbell makes his point by raising an interesting question. Suppose that the chaplain of an army were to address the soldiers on the eve of a great battle, and suppose he were to address them from the following passages:

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 an the unrighteous. – Matthew 5.44-45

Never pay back evil for evil to anyone… If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men. 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. “But if your enemy is hungry, feed him, and if he is thirsty, give him a drink… Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. – Romans 12.17-21

Campbell then asks:

Would anyone suppose that he had selected a text suitable to the occasion? How would the commander in chief have listened to him? With what spirit would his audience have immediately entered upon an engagement?

Reflecting upon these questions, Campbell concludes, “A Christian man cannot conscientiously enter upon any business, nor lend his energies to any cause, which he does not approve.

  1. The Beatitudes Pronounce Blessings on Peacemakers

The beatitudes of Christ are not pronounced on patriots, heroes, and conquerors, but on peacemakers, on whom is conferred the highest rank and title in the universe: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the sons of God.

As much as Campbell disliked the horrors, death, and grief brought on by wars, he felt that the moral desolation brought on by war were far worse. “Behold its influence on mothers, sisters, and relatives; note its contagion, its corruption of public taste.” During times of war, people become “fascinated by the halo of false glory thrown around these worshiped heroes.”

He observed that as a result of war, even churches “are ornamented with the sculptured representations of more military heroes than of saints – generals, admirals, and captains who “gallantly fought” and “gloriously fell” in the service of their country.

This worshipful attitude towards soldiers stands in stark contrast to the teachings of Christ, which pronounce blessings on peacemakers rather than on war heroes.

  1. War is Ineffective in Resolving Conflict

The folly of war is manifest in the following particulars: First. It can never be the criterion of justice of a proof of right. Second. It can never be a satisfactory end of the controversy. Third. Peace is always the result of negotiation, and treaties are its guaranty and pledge.

In Matthew 26.52, Jesus warned, “All those who take up the sword shall perish by the sword.” Campbell observed that this has continually been proved true. Throughout history, all nations that were created by the sword have eventually fallen by it. Therefore Campbell had “no doubt” that it would continue to be proved true in the future.

Wars don’t end wars. They produce greater controversy.

  1. War Constrains Soldiers to Kill Their Brethren For No Personal Cause

The wickedness of war is demonstrated in the following particulars:

First. Those who are engaged in killing their brethren, for the most part, have no personal cause of provocation whatever.

Second. They seldom, or never, comprehend the right or the wrong of the war. They, therefore, act without the approbation of conscience.

Third. In all wars the innocent are punished with the guilty.

Fourth. They constrain the soldier to do for the state that which, were he to do it for himself, would, by the law of the state, involved forfeiture of his life.

Fifth. They are the pioneers of all other evils to society, both moral and physical.

Campbell believed it would be morally wrong for an individual to do that in obedience to his government which he could not do in his own case. He asks the reader to consider a scenario where two neighbors were involved in a property line dispute. If one neighbor were to command his servant to burn the other neighbor’s fields and to kill several of his neighbor’s servants, would any judge or jury excuse the servant’s actions simply because the servant was following the orders of his master?

Campbell thus concluded,

We cannot of right as Christian men obey the powers that be in anything not in itself justifyable by written law… A Christian man can never be compelled to do that for the state, in defense of state rights, which he cannot of right do for himself in defense of his personal rights. No Christian man is commanded to love or serve his neighbor, his king, or sovereign more than he loves or serves himself. If this is conceded, unless a Christian man can go to war for himself, he cannot for the state.

Conclusion

For these reasons, Campbell believed “no Christian man who fears God and desires to be loyal to the Messiah, the Prince of Peace, shall be found in the ranks so unholy a warfare.

Campbell’s views on war were grounded in both logic and scripture. Since Jesus’s kingdom is not of this world, the cause of Christ should not be defended militarily. If the cause of Christ is insufficient for taking up arms, surely no lesser cause would be sufficient for taking up arms.

Does God Expect Governments to Love Their Enemies?

Must governments love their enemies? Are militaries required “turn the other cheek”? Does “do not resist an evil person” apply to police forces? In light of all that the Bible teaches about how to treat enemies, should nations have militaries at all?

Was The New Testament Written to Reform Governments?

The New Testament was not written as a moral code to reform all the disorders and evils of the political powers. The New Testament was not written to fill the world with so-called “Christian nations.”

Matthew 4.17 identifies the theme of Jesus’ teaching as “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Jesus’ hearers knew what the word “kingdom” meant. They were familiar with the Egypitians, the Assyrians, the Babylonians, and now the Romans. But the Kingdom preached by Jesus was to be distinguished from any of these earthly kingdoms. The kingdom preached by Jesus was the “kingdom of heaven.” That is, it was a kingdom from heaven. In other places it is described as the “kingdom of God.” In John 18.36, Jesus made the nature of his kingdom clear. “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.” Yes, Jesus came to establish His kingdom in the world, but his kingdom is not of this world.

There is an important distinction made between the kingdoms of this earth and the kingdoms of this world. Earthly kingdoms are under the authority of earthly rulers. The heavenly kingdom is under the authority of the heavenly Father. Earthly kingdoms fight. Those in Jesus’ kingdom do not fight.

The teachings found in the Sermon on the Mount (and throughout the whole New Testament) are the teachings of the kingdom of heaven, not the teachings of any earthly kingdom. Their purpose is not to reform the world by making earthly kingdoms moral, but rather to set apart the disciples of Jesus as “salt” and “light” to be distinguished from the rest of the world.

Paul understood that “loving your enemies” is an essential requirement for those who follow Jesus (Rom. 12.14-13.2). But Paul also understood that we cannot please God unless we have the Spirit of God (Rom. 8.5-16). We cannot love our enemies unless we first present our bodies as living sacrifices and are transformed by the renewing of our minds (Rom. 12.1-2).

Paul recognized that those who are outside of Christ are in darkness (Eph. 2.1-3). Therefore Paul appealed to Christians not to judge those who are outside the church, but rather to leave their judgment to God (1 Cor. 5.11-12).

The New Testament Is Silent on How Earthly Rulers Should Govern

God’s divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness (2 Pet. 1.2-3), but the New Testament is silent when it comes to how earthly rulers are to govern others. Christians are commanded to submit to earthly rulers (Rom. 13.1-4, 2 Pet. 2.13-18), pray for earthly rulers (1 Tim. 2.1-2), and pay taxes to them (Mt. 22.15-22; Rom 13.7), but nowhere are we given instructions to seek to reform or rule over the nations of this world.

In fact, Jesus taught nearly the opposite.

But Jesus called them to Himself and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. It is not this way among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your slave; just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many. – Matthew 28.25-28

When Jesus was approached with political questions, he used these as opportunities to advance the Kingdom of God (Mt. 22.15-22; Lk. 12.13-15). The point of His teaching was never to rule over others with more godly principles than other men. The point of his teaching was to establish a separate kingdom, founded on entirely different principles.

Paul encouraged Christians not to yoke themselves with unbelievers (2 Cor. 6.14-18), not to fight with earthly weapons (2 Cor. 10.3-4), and not to fight against flesh and blood (Eph. 6.12). He encouraged Christians to remember that earthly rulers and authorities have been disarmed (Col. 2.15). Therefore, Christians should not feel compelled to rule over earthly authorities, but rather they should submit to them (Rom 13.1-4).

The mission of the early church was not to solve the problems of the world by making Rome great, but rather to proclaim the Kingdom of God as the place where those problems will be solved. When disciples of Jesus display the peaceful principles of God’s kingdom, they will draw men out of the kingdoms of darkness into the kingdom of light.

Should Governments Turn the Other Cheek?

Sure, it would be great if every nation on earth followed the golden rule. It would be great if every military on earth acted with love towards their enemies. If every nation on earth were to turn the other cheek, there would probably be a lot less evil and war.

Yet for Christians, this is asking the wrong question. Governments don’t spread the kingdom of God. No military, no violence, and no sword can ever spread the gospel of the Prince of Peace. Neither do governments stop the spread of the kingdom of God. The New Testament is not concerned with reforming the Roman Empire into a Christian nation.

The New Testament never commands Rome, America, or any other nation to have a military. Neither does the New Testament command nations to get rid of their militaries.

The Bible does continually teach that nations will be held accountable for the wicked things they do. But when Paul wrote to the church in Rome, where wicked Nero reigned on the throne, Paul did not charge the church with disarming Nero and his forces. Rather Paul encouraged the church to remember that God can use even those who bear the sword for wicked Nero to accomplish good. Therefore, rather than seeking to disarm Nero, Christians should submit to him, recognizing that God uses earthly governments for the necessary work of executing wrath on evildoers (Rom. 13.1-4).

Rather than resisting the desires of evil earthly rulers, the duty of the Christian is to refuse to take vengeance against their enemies (Rom. 12.14-21). When Christians love their enemies and convert them from their evil, they reform society by removing the necessary reason for the existence of earthly governments and their militaries.

Does This Imply a Double Standard?

Some will object that this implies a double standard. That is, some will argue that if something is a sin for one person, it must be a sin for all people. And if something is right for one person, it must be right for all people. Interestingly, this same objection is raised by two different groups, each raising the objection with very different intentions.

On one hand, sometimes pacifists will argue since it would be wrong for Christians to violently resist evil, it would be wrong for anyone to resist evil. Therefore, Christians should actively call their governments to account whenever their government fails to love their enemies.

On the other hand, others will argue that since governments “do not bear the sword in vain”, and since God must be consistent, Christians must not be sinning when they bear the sword against their enemies. This objection argues that since God allows the world to use violence for a necessary purpose of executing wrath on evildoers, God must also be pleased when Christians when they use violence for the same purpose.

In response to this objection it should be noted that God has always held His people to a higher standard. For example, in the Old Testament, God always held priests to higher standards of holiness than other Israelites. When God commanded the Israelites to go to war, the priests were not to be numbered among those who would fight (Num. 1.47-54). This doesn’t make God inconsistent. Rather, because we know that God does not change (Mal. 3.6), we should come to the New Testament, expecting that God would hold the church, His holy priesthood (1 Pet. 2.5) to a higher standard.

The entire Sermon on the Mount is founded upon the idea that Christians are to be salt and light. Paul’s commands about loving enemies in Romans 12 are founded upon the idea that Christians are not to be conformed to this world (Rom. 12.1-2). Yes, God may use those in the world to bear the sword, but it is not be problematic to think that God holds Christians to a higher standard. It should be expected!

Hope for the world doesn’t like in simply reforming the governments and militaries of this world with Christian ethics.  The command, “love your enemies”, is directly connected to the work and teaching of Jesus, who turned the other cheek when he was crucified by the Roman government.

If we were to succeed in infusing every earthly kingdom with godly principles, but we failed to spread the gospel of the kingdom of God, we will have failed. We cannot expect the world to conform to Jesus’s teachings without first being transformed by the work of Jesus. The answer to wars and violence does not lie in political reform of earthly kingdoms. The answer is found in following the Prince of Peace and inviting the world into His kingdom.

Overturning the Tables on Violence

Jesus taught His disciples to love their enemies (Lk 6.27, 35; Mt. 5.44) do good to them (Lk. 6.27, 34-35), bless them instead of curse them (Lk. 6.37), give to them without expecting anything in return (Mt. 5.44; Lk. 6.30, 34), never resist them with force (Mt. 5.38-39), treat them the way we wish they would treat us (Lk. 6.31), turn the other cheek when struck (Mt. 5.39; Lk. 6.29), and pray for them rather than seeking to injure them (Mt. 26.51-53).

Many, however, will argue that since Jesus acted violently when He cleansed the temple, this proves that Jesus did not intend to his teachings about loving enemies to be taken as absolutes or intend to teach total non-violence. The much discussed passage can be found in Mark 11.15-18, with parallels in Matthew 21.12-17, Luke 19.45-48, and John 2.13-17.

Then they came to Jerusalem. And He entered the temple and began to drive out those who were buying and selling in the temple, and overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who were selling doves; and He would not permit anyone to carry merchandise through the temple. And He began to teach and say to them, “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a robbers’ den.” The chief priests and the scribes heard this, and began seeking to destroy Him; for they were afraid of Him, for the whole crowd was astonished at His teaching.

In order to understand what Jesus was doing in the temple, we must begin by examining the context. Examined in context it becomes clear that the temple cleansing is not an example of random, uncontrolled wrath.  There are key observations that can be made from the texts which indicate that Jesus’s actions were premeditated, intentional, and loaded with meaning. Jesus was acting purposefully to make a point. Only after understanding the point Jesus was making will we be in a position to wrestle with the implications of this text upon our lives.

The Context: Jesus’ Warnings of Judgment Against the Temple

The temple cleaning scene is presented to us in close connection with (and perhaps as the climax of) the rest of Jesus’ work. Jesus often warned of judgment that would come upon those who refused His call to repentance. Even more specifically, Jesus frequently warned that the temple itself would be judged and destroyed for rejecting his message (Mt. 24; 26.61; 27.39-40; Mk. 13; 14.58; 15.29-30; Jn. 2.19; Acts 6.14).

These warnings create a context where the actions of Jesus in the temple would not have been viewed as those of a random Jew whose religious zeal led him to misbehave. These were the actions of the man who had continually warned that the temple would be destroyed as a result of rejecting His message.

Matthew (21.18-22) and Mark (11.12-14; 20-26) both present the temple cleansing in close connection with Jesus cursing a fig tree for not bearing fruit. Mark actually splits Jesus’ judgment of the fig tree into two parts, with the temple cleansing sandwiched in the middle. The cleaning of the temple explains and is explained by the cursing of the fig tree for failing to bear fruit.

Luke (19.41-44) places the cleaning of the temple immediately after Jesus wept over the city of Jerusalem because they had not accepted “the things which make for peace”, and as a result would suffer destruction.

John (2.18-22) connects the temple cleansing with Jesus’s prophetic warning that the temple would be destroyed. This makes it clear that Jesus was acting symbolically to demonstrate that God was displeased with the corrupt religious practices of the temple. In response to the temple cleansing, everyone who witnessed the event understood that the temple cleansing was anything but a spontaneous tantrum of the part of Jesus. The people understood the deep significance of Jesus’ actions.

In all four accounts the cleansing of the temple must be read in close connection with Jesus’ warnings of judgment and the destruction of the temple. Given this context, it is clear that when Jesus overturned the tables and drove out the animals with a whip, He was making a point, and everyone knew it.

What Point Was Jesus Making?

After Jesus cleansed the temple, He quoted form Jeremiah 7.11 to make his point immediately and explicitly clear (Mark 11.17 and parallels). Jeremiah 7 is part of an important sermon of Jeremiah in which he denounced the temple and offered warning for those who unthinkingly trusted in it. Although lengthy, it is worthwhile to read the entire context from which Jesus selected this quote.

Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, “Amend your ways and your deeds, and I will let you dwell in this place. Do not trust deceptive words, saying, ‘This is the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD.’ For if you truly amend your ways and your deeds, if you truly practice justice between a man and his neighbor, if you do not oppress the alien, the orphan, or the widow, and do not shed innocent blood in this place, nor walk after other gods to your own ruin, then I will let you dwell in this place, in the land that I gave to your fathers forever and ever.

Behold, you are trusting in deceptive words to no avail. Will you steal, murder, and commit adultery and swear falsely, and offer sacrifices to Baal and walk after other gods that you have not known, then come and stand before me in this house, which is called by My name, and say, ‘We are delivered!’ – that you may do all these abominations? Has this house, which is called by My name, become a den of robbers in your sight? Behold, I, even I, have seen it,” declares the LORD….

Therefore thus says the Lord GOD, “Behold, My anger and my wrath will be poured out on this place.”

Jeremiah 7.3-11, 20

The main thrust of Jeremiah’s warning is abundantly clear. Jeremiah offers a serious critique of the Jews of his day, who had placed their confidence in the temple, while simultaneously using the temple as the rallying point for all kinds of wickedness and violence. As a result, the temple would be destroyed.

To refer to this scene as the “temple cleansing” is a bit of a misnomer. Jesus was not simply cleansing the temple of a little bit of corruption. He was warning that the temple would be destroyed because once again, as in Jeremiah’s day, the temple had become a den of robbers.

The word translated “robbers” is not the word used to describe swindlers and thieves. It is the word used to describe those who would use violence to take what they wanted. It is the word that was used for what we would describe as “bandits” or “thugs”. Josephus frequently used this word to refer to violent revolutionaries who were willing kill to bring about their political aspirations (Antiquities Book 13, 16.5; Book 15, 10.1; War Book 1, 16.2-4). The same word is used in John to describe Barabbas, who had “committed murder in the insurrection” (Mk. 15.7; Jn. 18.40).

Jesus was not simply critiquing greedy businessmen in the temple who had inflated their prices. Jesus was warning that the temple would be destroyed because it had become the dwelling place of violent political revolutionaries.

This gives understanding as to why the “cleansing” of the temple is so closely connected with Jesus’ lamentation over Jerusalem for rejecting his message of peace. What Jesus was doing in the temple is parallel with what Jesus had done to the fig tree. Because those in the temple had failed to bear fruits of repentance, because they had failed to embrace Jesus’ enemy-loving message of peace, they would be destroyed.

Violence Brings God’s Judgment

Rather than demonstrating that violence is sometimes acceptable for the followers of Jesus, when Jesus cleansed the temple he was dramatically demonstrating that violence brings God’s judgment. What we read is not a random outburst of wrath, but rather a premeditated and symbolic condemnation of violence.

But still, the question remains, did Jesus act violently in the temple? Did Jesus use the whip violently against his enemies to make his point? And if so, can the disciples of Jesus use violence for similar purposes?

Jesus most certainly acted aggressively, but the text is not entirely clear that Jesus acted violently. For example, Preston Sprinkle argues that John 2.15 should be translated “And He made a scourge of cords, and drove them all out of the temple, that is, the sheep and the oxen”, thus indicating that the whip was only used against the animals, and not against people. Others, such as Greg Boyd, have observed that generally speaking, whips were not used to harm animals, but rather to drive them by making a loud cracking sound.

I do not consider myself qualified to comment on the strengths or weaknesses of these suggestions, but I do find it significant that Jesus was not immediately arrested on the spot, as would be expected if Jesus was actually whipping people.

But suppose for a moment that Jesus did use the whip violently against his enemies. If this is the case, we still must not ignore the main point of the scene. Yes, this might indicate that Jesus did not intend an absolute prohibition against all violence in all circumstances. And yes, this might indicate that there could be exceptions to Jesus’s other “love your enemy” commands, whereby we might be allowed us use violence in limited circumstances. But, even so, we must not look for the exception to the rule to replace the rule itself.

It is a common mistake to look to the temple cleansing to prove that violence is sometimes acceptable, and then starting with the exception, work backwards into Jesus’ commands about loving enemies. This approach reduces “love your enemy” into little more than “be nice to your grumpy neighbors.” Instead, we must start by grasping the main point of the temple scene and of the rest of Jesus’ teachings. If there are exceptions to this main point, they must be treated as exceptions, and not the rule itself.

The main point of the temple cleansing is not to show that it is acceptable to use violence against enemies. The point is nearly the opposite. The temple was to be judged because they had rejected Jesus’s enemy-loving message of peace.