A Letter To Christian Youth Considering Military Service

Dear Brother or Sister,

At some point you will be faced with the choice of whether or not to join the military. Throughout history, Christians have wrestled with, and often disagreed about, the appropriateness of military service for a Christian. Only you can decide for yourself whether or not you should join the military. I write this letter, not to tell you what decision to make, but to hopefully bring clarity to some of the questions you may be wrestling with (or perhaps to introduce some questions you have not yet considered).

As you consider your decision, I encourage you to think about two different, but related sets of questions.

Firstly, can you, as a Christian, kill your enemies? You need to know what the Bible says about how Christians should treat their enemies and consider the implications of these commands upon your role in the military.

Secondly, there are several instances where Jesus and his disciples interacted with members of the military. What can be learned from these interactions? How should they impact your decision?

Ultimately you must draw your own conclusions from your own study. It would be wise for you to think about these questions prior to putting yourself in a position where you may be called upon to compromise your conscience.

Can Christians Kill Their Enemies?

The New Testament has much to say about how Christians are to treat their enemies. We must love them (Lk. 6.27, 35; Mt. 5.44), bless them (Lk. 6.28; Rom. 12.14), do good to them (Lk. 6.27; 34-35), turn the other cheek (Mt. 5.38-39; Lk. 6.29), and we must not resist those who do evil.

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

We are never to return evil for evil (Rom. 12.17, 19; 1 Thess. 5.15; 1 Pet. 3.9). Rather we are to give food to our enemies when they are hungry, and we are to give them drink when they are thirsty.

Never pay back evil for evil to anyone. Respect what is right in the sight of all men. 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; for in so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. – Romans 12.17-21

Ultimately, we are called to follow Jesus’s example, who was willing to suffer unjustly, even when he had the power to destroy his enemies (Eph. 5.1-2; Phil. 2.4-8; 1 Pet. 2.21-23).

And here’s the thing: there’s never an exception clause. There’s never any kind of statement such as “Love your enemies, except when they present a threat to others” or “Love your enemies, unless your role in the military requires that you kill them.” We’re just supposed to love our enemies. Period. We are to do good to them. Period. We are not to resist evil doers. Period.

We don’t get to say “Yeah, but this doesn’t count when it comes to really bad enemies, such as terrorists.” In fact, those are exactly the kind of enemies Jesus and his disciples had in mind. They weren’t only threatened by a foreign nation; they were already conquered by them. The Romans were known to put dozens, even thousands of Jews to death by crucifixion just to keep them living in fear. If you can imagine an America that has already been conquered by our worst enemies, then perhaps you can start to grasp the kind of enemies Jesus had in mind when He commanded his followers to love their enemies.

So the challenging question you must wrestle with is this: in light of all that the New Testament says about how Christians are to treat their enemies, can we, as followers of Jesus, justify killing our enemies?

Jesus Never Denounced Military Service

In light of all that the New Testament says about how to treat our enemies, we might expect to find Jesus denouncing military service all together. However, this isn’t what we find. Although He had numerous opportunities, Jesus never denounced military service. Not even once.

When soldiers asked John the Baptist what they needed to do to repent, John told them “do not exhort money from anyone by threats or by false accusation, and be content with your wages” (Lk. 3.14). But he didn’t tell them to leave the military.

In Matthew 8.5-13, a Centurion approached Jesus asking him to heal his servant. In response, Jesus praised the Centurion’s faith without adding a single word about his role in the wicked and idolatrous Roman army.

In Mark 15.39, Mark records that a Centurion who was assisting in the crucifixion of Jesus confessed “Truly this man was the Son of God.” Other than simply mentioning this confession, Mark didn’t add any other comment, expressing neither approval nor disapproval of the centurion’s role in the military.

In Acts 10, Cornelius, a centurion, was described as an “upright and God-fearing man who is spoken well of by the whole Jewish nationbefore he became a Christian. In the account of his conversion, he was commanded to be baptized. But not one word was spoken about his role as a centurion. He was not asked to leave the military.

In all of these accounts, no military person was ever asked to leave their positions. For many, this settles the question of military service. Many will cite these passages to defend the position that Christians can fight in the military without having any reservations about being called upon to kill their enemies.

However, I caution you not to argue for more than what these scriptures teach. Although none of these passages instruct military personnel to leave their positions, none of them express words of approval of their positions in the military either.

To argue that these passages give Christians full approval for military service is an argument from silence. Arguing from silence is what many will do with the account of the Philippian jailer to argue for infant baptism. Acts 16.33 tells us that the jailer and his whole family were baptized. Some will point and say “see, there’s infant baptism.” But the text doesn’t say that infants were baptized. That’s an argument from silence.We can only infer from what the text says, not from what the text doesn’t say. 

Jesus frequently interacted with sinners without commenting on whether or not he approved of their sin. In John 4.16-18, Jesus spoke with a Samaritans woman who had been divorced five times and was living with a woman she wasn’t married to. Jesus never rebuked her or told her to leave the man she was living with. Does this mean that Jesus approved of her marriages, divorces, and cohabitation? Certainly not!

Luke 5.29-30 describes how Jesus was eating with tax collectors and sinners. And yet there’s not one work from Jesus rebuking them. This doesn’t mean that Jesus approved of their sin. It means that Jesus was willing to meet them where they were in life, and start working with them at that point.

We can only argue from what the Bible actually says, not from what it doesn’t say. We can say that Jesus didn’t rebuke soldiers for their military service or require them to step down. We cannot say that Jesus therefore approved (or disapproved) of them in these positions.

It is safe to assume that if each of these soldiers continued to follow Jesus, they would eventually be confronted with the same “love your enemy” commands mentioned above. They would have to work out the implications of those commands in their own lives. Did they leave their military posts? Did they stay and try their best to serve Jesus and love their enemies from within the military? We simply don’t know. The text doesn’t tell us.

The Decision is Yours

The Bible never gives a clear command about whether or not a Christian can join the military. So the question comes down to you. In light of all that Jesus commanded about how Christians are to treat their enemies, can you put yourself in a position where you may be called on to kill your enemies?

If you decide you cannot join the military without compromising your conscience, then don’t join. But, don’t turn your conviction into a formula that you can apply to other Christians who decide to join the military. Although we must clearly teach what Jesus teaches about how Christians are to treat their enemies, we must never draw a line that Scripture doesn’t draw. If Jesus never felt compelled to condemn military service, we shouldn’t either.

No Christian has any business questioning the authenticity of another Christian’s faith, regardless of whether they are in the US military or in a military that opposes the US. In the New Testament, military persons were met with the gospel wherever they were, and were left to work out the difficult implications on their own. We should do the same.

If it seems to us that someone’s position in the military makes them a sinner, let us remember the words of Jesus in Matthew 7.1-3:

Do not judge so that you will not be judged. For in the way you judge, you will be judged; and by your standard of measure, it will be measured to you. Why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?

If you do choose to join the military, nothing in scripture forbids you from making that choice. But never stop wrestling with what it means to “love your enemies”, to “do good to them” and to “leave vengeance to God”.

Make a practice of loving your enemies in small everyday ways. Be kind to your grumpy neighbor. Buy supper for the rude, arrogant, self-centered person in your unit. Pray for the lives and families of enemy soldiers that they will be blessed with the gospel. Train your heart to respond in love to the people who deserve it the least. And then, when you come face to face with your enemy, with your finger on the trigger, have the courage to love them even in that crucial moment.

Never stop following Jesus. Never stop loving your enemies.

In Him,

Your Loving Brother

Capital Punishment, War, and Loving Your Enemies

Does God’s authorization of capital punishment and war in the Old Testament imply that it is appropriate for Christians to execute justice on their enemies and even kill them if necessary?

Does the Old Testament teach that God authorizes violence?

There are many Old Testament scriptures that show that in some situations God divinely authorized violence, including the death penalty, as punishment for crimes. For example, God commanded the death penalty for murder (Ex. 21.12-14; 19; Lev. 24.17, 21), hitting one’s parents (Ex. 21.15; 17; Lev. 20.9), kidnapping (Ex. 21.16; Deut. 24.7), and sacrificing a child to the god Molech (Lev. 20.3). Numerous other examples could be given.

There are also Old Testament examples where God commanded His people to go to war. Perhaps most glaring is when God commands the complete destruction of the Canaanites.

You shall not leave alive anything that breathes. But you shall utterly destroy them, the Hittite and the Amorite, the Canaanites and the Perizzite, the Hivite and the Jebusite, as the LORD your God has commanded you. – Deut. 20.16-17 (cf. 7.1-2)

In 1 Samuel 15, God commands Saul to “utterly destroy” the Amalekites (v. 3). When Saul disobeys God by saving some of the spoil, he is rebuked by Samuel (vs. 8-9; 19), who then responds by killing Agag, king of the Amalekites (v. 33). It certainly appears that God approved of Samuel’s obedient violence.

Other examples could be cited, but the two examples mentioned here should be sufficient to show that at times God divinely sanctioned acts of violence against evildoers. We can therefore view these Old Testament warriors as examples of faithful obedience (cf. Heb. 11.34)

Does God Always Approve of Just Violence?

Although God sometimes commanded the Israelites to do violence against wrongdoers, this does not imply that God commands all people at all times to engage in violence against their enemies. God does not change (Mal. 3.6), but sometimes His expectations change.

Early in David’s reign, David received God’s approval before going to war (2 Sam. 5.17-25). Yet late in David’s life, David took a military census without God’s approval and was punished for it (2 Sam. 24.2-4). God viewed David as unfit for building the temple as a direct result his waging of wars (1 Chron. 22.8; 28.3). Although God approved of some of David’s wars, He did not approve of all of David’s military actions.

Years later, Hosea would rebuke Israel for multiplying “lies and violence” and for making an alliance with Assyria (Hos. 12.1). Hosea rebuked Israel for trusting in their warriors (10.13), and for multiplying their national defenses (8.14).

Micah warned that God would “cut off your horses from among you, and destroy your chariots” (5.10-11). Amos too was very critical of nations who used violence against other nations (1.3, 6, 9, 11, 13; 2.1), and voiced strong opposition to Israel’s trust in their military power (2.14-16; 3.9-11; 6.13-14).

Keep in mind that Israel was not looking to use military alliances and violence to be conquerors. They were simply looking to the sword for self-defense against other wicked nations. Yet they were met with God’s disapproval because they had turned from trusting in God to trusting in their military might.

What Can We Conclude from God’s Authorization of Just Violence?

  1. God is a Just God

God views human life as special, and God values justice. Although God does not delight in the death of the wicked (Ezek. 33.11), He did write the death penalty into His law and at times commanded warfare.

Whoever sheds man’s blood,
By man his blood shall be shed,
For in the image of God
He made man
– Genesis 9.6

  1. Not All Killing Is Murder

Although the Old Testament is clear that murder is wrong (Ex. 20.13), it is also clear that not all killing is murder. Since what God does and directs others to do is always right and just (Ps. 19.7-19; 33.4-5), and since God tempts no one to do evil (Jas. 1.13), this shows that capital punishment and war are not inherently wrong.

  1. The Key Issue Has Always Been Faithful Obedience to God

Although the Old Testament does show that God gives divine authorization of violence in some circumstances, it is important to recognize that God – not Israel’s military might – would determine their victory.

The LORD your God is the one who goes with you, to fight against your enemies, to save you. – Deut. 20.4

When God defeated the Egyptians as they tried to cross the Red Sea, the entire battle was fought and won single-handedly by God. (Ex. 14-15). God left no room for doubt: Israel was saved by God’s strength alone, not by their own military might.

Israel faced a seemingly undefeatable enemy in Jericho. And yet, because they faithfully obeyed God’s command to march around the walls, God delivered the city of Jericho into their hands (Josh. 7). In contrast to Jericho, Ai was a much smaller village, and would seemingly be an easy victory. However, due to disobedience, Ai defeated Israel (Josh. 8). Israel’s strength in battle was not dependent on their own ability to defeat their enemies. Their strength was dependent on their faithful obedience to God.

In Judges 7, God trimmed down Gideon’s army to just three hundred, lest the people boast and say, “My own power has delivered me” (Jud. 7.2). Israel’s army was made weak so that God would be shown to be strong.

The Holy Spirit summed up the source Israel’s strength in Psalm 33:

The king is not saved by a mighty army;
A warrior is not delivered by great strength.
A horse is a false hope for victory;
Nor does it deliver anyone by its great strength.

Behold, the eye of the LORD is on those who fear Him,
On those who hope for His lovingkindness,
To deliver their soul from death
-Psalm 33.16-19

Even though God did instruct His people to execute the death penalty and, on occasion, to go to war, Israel’s strength was never dependent on the sword. Their strength was found in their faithful dependence on God.

Our Strength is Found in Obedience to God’s Commands

The Christian’s highest goal is faithfulness.  If God commands that Christians execute violence against their enemies, it would be wrong not to. The most important question to consider is this: What has God commanded Christians to do in response to their enemies?

What Has God Commanded Christians To Do In Response To Their Enemies?

The New Testament does not directly address how governments and nations are to view and treat their enemies. But the New Testament has much to say about how Christians are to treat and think about their enemies. As Christians, we are to…

That’s everything the New Testament teaches on the matter of how Christians are to treat wrongdoers. Note that nowhere do we find any exception clause in these teachings. Jesus never says “Love your enemies and do good to them except when common sense and your desire for justice tell you that you need to kill them”.

What About Justice?

Jesus embraced God’s justice. According to Jesus, if someone makes a little one to stumble, it would be better for them to have a millstone hung around their neck rather than to face God’s judgment (Mt. 18.6; Lk. 17.2).

In fact, the reason Jesus didn’t fight back when He was crucified is because He “kept entrusting Himself to Him who judges righteously” (1 Pet 2.23). The reason Paul commanded Christians not to avenge themselves is because God has said “Vengeance is mine, I will repay” (Rom. 12.19). The more we believe that God will execute His justice on evildoers, the more we can trust that we are free from having to take justice into our own hands.

This is not to argue that all killing is inherently wrong. This is not to argue that all policemen and soldiers are murderers. This is not to argue that governments and nations are necessarily acting wickedly when they execute justice.

God is the all-knowing, and perfectly-just Creator of life. As such, if God wants to use governments to execute His wrath against evildoers, He certainly has that right (Cf. Rom. 13.1-4).

But, as Christians, God gave us the responsibility is to love and do good to our enemies, even when the principle of justice tells us that they would deserve far worse (cf. Mt. 5.38-39; Lk. 6.27-29). And no Christian can offer any service to their government that would cause them to compromise their commitment to God (Acts 5.29).

Every disciple of Jesus must wrestle all of His teachings. I cannot see how a Christian can use violence to execute justice and at the same time faithfully follow God’s commands to love our enemies.

What About Common Sense?

Granted, these teachings don’t make any sense. In fact, at times, refusing to violently resist evil can sound downright foolish. But how much sense did it make for Moses to stretch out his staff across the Red Sea? How much sense did it make for Israel to march around the walls of Jericho? How much sense did it make for Gideon to trim his army down to just 300 men? How much sense did it make for the all-powerful God to let Himself get tortured and killed unjustly rather than using his power to defeat His enemies?

The strength of God’s people has never been found in their weapons. The strength of God’s people is found in their faithful obedience to God.

Does Romans 13 Teach That Christians Have Permission to Kill For Their Government?

It is my conviction that since the fourth century AD, the frequent misinterpretation of Romans 13 has done more to harm the reputation of Christianity than perhaps any other misinterpreted scripture.

Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God. Therefore whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves. For rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior, but for evil. Do you want to have no fear of authority? Do what is good and you will have praise from the same; for it is a minister of God to you for good. But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God , an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil. – Romans 13.1-4

This scripture is used to support the idea that Christians have a “dual citizenship.” That is, since God set up government, and since they do not bear the sword in vain, Christians have obligations both to God and to the government. These obligations do not conflict with one another since government authorities have different responsibilities than private individuals.

According to this view, when a Christian is acting as an agent of their government, they may bear the sword against their enemies, but when they act as individuals they are to love their enemies. Therefore a Christian may bear the sword against evildoers without sinning if they are doing so as an agent of the government.

This has been the dominant way of understanding Romans 13 ever since the Catholic Church came into political power in the late 4th century. But this is not what Romans 13 actually teaches. In fact, Romans 13 teaches nearly the opposite.

What is Wrong with the “Dual Citizenship” Idea?

Before looking at Romans 13, these three things should cause us to pause before accepting the dual citizenship interpretation.

  1. The way the New Testament describes Jesus

Jesus didn’t have divided loyalties. Rather, Jesus was executed by the Jewish and Roman authorities because they viewed Him as their enemy. Jesus did have lots to say that should impact the way a Christian approaches politics, but Jesus never sought a political office or political reform. Jesus served only one Master.

Also notice the language that the early Christians used to describe Jesus. In the early Roman Empire, the unifying slogan was “Caesar is Lord.” When Christians confessed “Jesus is Lord”, this not only made a statement about Jesus, it also made a statement about Caesar. If Jesus is Lord, Caesar is not.  They didn’t have two sets of loyalties; they had one. This was the primary reason Christians were thrown into prison and persecuted by their government.

  1. What Jesus taught about love for enemies

Jesus’ teachings about love for enemies rule out any possibility of allowing that love to be qualified by anyone or anything.

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. – Matthew 5.43-45

Christians are to love the way the Father loves, and the Father doesn’t pick and choose who He is going to send rain and sunshine to. Just as the Father has no exception clause when it comes to His love for enemies, likewise Jesus offered no exception clause for Christians when they love their enemies.

This rules out any possibility of Christians saying “I’m going to love this kind of enemy, but not that kind of enemy”, or “I’m going to love my enemies in these circumstances, but not in those circumstances.”  The command has nothing to do with the nature of our enemies or our circumstances.

This undermines the idea Christians must do good to their enemies, unless they are acting in the political realm, in which case they are allowed to bear the sword against them. Unqualified, enemy-love, is the identifying mark of those who are sons of their Father. As soon as we look for a time when it is “okay” to not love our enemies, we have ceased to love the way our Father loves.

  1. What Jesus taught about resisting evil

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 the right cheek, turn the other to him also. – Matthew 5.38-39

When Jesus said “Do not resist an evil person,” He didn’t mean Christians are to be passive and do nothing in response to evil.  The Greek word translated “resist” specifically refers to violent resistance. It means that Christians aren’t to respond with an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a bullet for a bullet, or a bomb for a bomb. Christians can and should resist evil by getting involved and even laying down their lives if necessary, but they aren’t to respond to violence with violence.

Just retaliation was the principle upon which all the Old Testament scriptures about punishing violence were founded (Ex. 21.24), and it is likewise the principle of justice that underlies our modern social system. Jesus said, “You have heard” that principle of justice, and then immediately instructs his followers not to follow that principle. Disciples of Jesus cannot use the principle of justice to justify violence against enemies.

Supporters of the “dual citizenship” idea sometimes look to the Old Testament to defend their position. Jesus recognized that the Old Testament commanded just retaliation. But Jesus commanded His followers not to follow that principle, but rather to love the way the Father loves.

Does Romans 13 Make An Exception?

Romans 13 is often used to make two closely related points. 1) While God doesn’t approve of private retaliation, He does approve of governments when they bear the sword. 2) Therefore, when Christians bear the sword against evildoers as agents of the government, they are not sinning.

Next time you hear Romans 13 used in this way, consider these three points.

  1. “Institutes” does not mean “approved”

The Greek word translated as “institutes” is “Tasso”. Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance defines Tasso as “to arrange in an orderly manner.” Thayer’s Lexicon defines it as “To place in a certain order, to arrange, to assign a place, to appoint.” “Tasso” cannot be translated as “created” or “approves of”.

When a librarian arranges books, it doesn’t matter whether the librarian likes a book or despises a book. To arrange those books in a certain order doesn’t infer that the librarian approves of what is written in those books.

Romans 13 builds on the Old Testament teachings about how God uses pagan governments to accomplish His will. God used nations such as the Assyrians and Babylonians as His ministers, but continually made it clear that He did not approve of the violence of those nations.

Romans 13 doesn’t teach that God “approves” of governments. Rather it teaches that God takes them as they are, whether good or evil, and arranges them in a way which serves His purposes. God arranges them to avenge the one who practices evil for the good of His children. Therefore governments do not bear the sword in vain.

  1. Not bearing the sword in vain is not the same as “not sinning”

In this context, when Paul writes that governments “do not bear the sword in vain”, this means that when governments wield the sword of violence, God arranges them to ensure that their violence is not without purpose.

God can make all things work together for the good of those who are called according to His purpose (Rom. 8.28). In the context of Romans 8, this includes persecution, distress, famine, nakedness, peril, and sword. No one would argue that persecution “is good” or “has God’s approval”, but God can use horrible things to work together for the good of His children. They are not in vain.

In the same way, governments do not bear the sword in vain. But there is not one word in Romans 13 that can be used to suggest that Christians have permission to bear the sword against their enemies without sinning.

  1. Context, Context, Context

If we read Romans 13 in context we can see that Paul is actually teaching something opposite of the “dual citizenship” idea.

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse… Never pay back evil for evil to anyoneNever 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; for in so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. – Romans 12: 14, 17, 19-21

Like Jesus, Paul offers no qualifications to enemy-love. We are to love all of our enemies, all the time, without exception. Christians are to leave all vengeance to God. This is the same Greek word (ekdikeos) used in Romans 13.4 to describe what God uses governments to accomplish.

Never take your own revenge (ekdikeo), beloved. – Romans 12.19a

Why? Because…

Vengeance (ekdikos) is mine”… says the Lord.” – Romans 12.19b

How does God execute vengeance on our enemies?

[Government] is a minister of God, an avenger (ekdikos) who brings wrath on the one who practices evil. – Romans 13.4

God uses governments to do the very thing He forbids Christians from doing. Christians are never to execute vengeance. We aren’t allowed to do that.

Conclusion

Romans 13 must not be used to encourage Christians to bear the sword for their government against evildoers. First of all Romans 13 does not teach God’s approval of governments when they bear the sword. And even more importantly, no Christian should ever offer any service to their government that would cause them to compromise their commitment to Christ. As Christians, we have sworn off all vengeance against our enemies. Vengeance belongs to God, and God uses governments to bring it about.

Christians do not have dual citizenship with dual allegiances and dual sets of responsibilities. Yes, in a legal sense, we do have citizenship in an earthly country. But when it comes to our allegiance, we are to proclaim that Jesus is Lord (and Caesar is not).

Did Jesus Teach Us To Arm Ourselves?

Jesus did not teach that Christians should use violence to protect themselves from their enemies. He taught that Christians should live with attitudes that are antithetical to violence (Mt. 5.3-12). He taught His disciples not to resist evil people (Mt. 5.38-42). He taught us to love our enemies, pray for them, and bless them (Mt. 5.43-46; Lk. 6.27-37). He taught us to follow His example of taking up a cross, even though He could have crushed His enemies with force (Mt. 16.24-26). Jesus’ teachings about how Christians should treat their enemies are clear, and stand in stark contrast to the “common sense” approach typically shown by people in the world. Notice that Jesus’s approach towards enemies includes doing good to them, lest anyone should mistakenly conclude that they can love their enemy in their heart, while doing them harm.

But what about Luke 22.36? Did Jesus give His approval of preparing to use force against evil? Here is the verse in context:

And he said to them, “When I sent you out with no moneybag or knapsack or sandals, did you lack anything?” They said, “Nothing.” He said to them, “But now let the one who has a moneybag take it, and likewise a knapsack. And let the one who has no sword sell his cloak and buy one. For I tell you that this Scripture must be fulfilled in me: ‘And he was numbered with the transgressors.’ For what is written about me has its fulfillment.” And they said, “Look, Lord, here are two swords.” And he said to them, “It is enough.” – Luke 22.35-38

Did Jesus instruct us to arm ourselves? How did Jesus anticipate His disciples to understand this request in light of His other non-violent and enemy loving commandments?

How should this text be applied by Christians today? Should we all be getting our concealed carry permits? Should we all start arming ourselves when we go to worship? What steps should Christians take to protect themselves against imminent threats of danger? What should loving our enemies look like in light of this verse?

Loving Our Enemies Does Not (Always) Contradict Self-Defense

There is nothing wrong with self-defense, unless of course our method of defending ourselves requires us to deny Christ or His teachings. Faithfulness is always more important than safety. Loving our enemies is more important than safety. Doing good to our enemies is more important than safety. But as long as we maintain faithful obedience to God, there is nothing wrong with taking steps to keep ourselves and our loved ones safe in the face of imminent danger.

There are several New Testament examples of self-defense. When King Herod sought to kill Jesus as a child, Joseph and Mary fled to Egypt to keep Him safe. When Saul of Tarsus was ravaging the church, the early Christians fled Jerusalem for safety. When Paul’s life was sought by the governor of Damascus, he took steps to defend himself by escaping through a basket in the wall of the city. These early Christians didn’t flee out of fear, but they didn’t actively seek to be martyred either. They valued self-protection, and we should too.

Luke 22.36 Does Not Teach Self-Defense

Even though self-defense is not wrong, Luke 22.36 does not teach that Christians should use weapons to defend themselves against the wicked.

First of all, the math just doesn’t work. Two swords for the self-defense of twelve men? And yet Jesus says that two swords are enough? Hardly!

Secondly, just a few verses later, Jesus rebukes his disciples when they tried to use their swords for that very purpose.

While he was still speaking, there came a crowd, and the man called Judas, one of the twelve was leading them. He drew near to Jesus to kill him, but Jesus said to him, “Judas, would you betray the Son of Man with a kiss?” And when those who were around him saw what would follow, they said, “Lord, shall we strike with the sword?” And one of them struck the servant of the high priest and cut off his right ear. But Jesus said, “No more of this!” And he touched his ear and healed him. Then Jesus said to the chief priests and officers of the temple and elders who had come out against him, “Have you come out as against a robber, with swords and clubs? When I was with you day after day in the temple, you did not lay hands on me. But this is your hour, and the power of darkness.” – Luke 22.47-53

The disciples, when threatened by enemies, did what most people would do: they pulled out their weapons for self-defense. But when they drew their swords, Jesus rebuked them. “Enough of this!”

(As a side note, the KJV has a more literal translation “Suffer ye thus far!”. The Greek, “eao heos toutou” carries the idea of “letting something be” or “permitting” something, but only for a limited amount of time. That is, carrying the sword for self-defense was something that had been tolerated, but time was up! “Enough of this!”, although less literal, carries this same idea in more natural modern English.)

However we are to understand Jesus’ command to buy a sword, the one conclusion the text does not allow is that Jesus was approving of using the sword for self-defense.

Why Did Jesus Command His Disciples to Buy a Sword?

So what was the reason for buying the sword? Thankfully we are not left to guess for ourselves. The text answers this question for us.

And let the one who has no sword sell his cloak and buy one. For I tell you that this Scripture must be fulfilled in me: ‘And He was numbered with the transgressors.’ For what is written about me has its fulfillment.’” – Luke 22.36-37

The text gives us one reason why Jesus would command his disciples to buy a sword: to fulfill prophecy. That’s it. That’s the reason the text gives us. Nothing more. Nothing about self-defense. Nothing about preparing to use the sword against enemies in worst case scenarios. Nothing that would contradict His earlier commands to “do not resist the evil one” and love our enemies.

Two swords were enough to fulfill Isaiah 53.12.

Because he poured out his soul to death
And was numbered among the transgressors;
Yet he bore the sins of man,
And makes intercession for the transgressors.

When Jesus and his disciples carried swords, this was enough to provoke a response that was usually reserved for violent transgressors. Notice the way the text points how Jesus’ enemies changed their approach towards him.

Have you come out as against a robber, with swords and clubs? When I was with you day after day in the temple, you did not lay hands on me. But this is your hour and the power of darkness. – Luke 22.52-53

When Jesus was in the temple without a sword, they did not come out against him. Now, they came out against him as a robber. Earlier He was not numbered among transgressors, and now He was. Why? What was the difference? The swords.

Matthew’s account adds some additional clarity to the role the swords played in causing Jesus to be numbered among the transgressors.

And behold, one of those who were with Jesus stretched out his hand and drew is sword and struck the servant of the high priest and cut off his ear. Then Jesus said to him, ‘Put your sword in your place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword. Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? But how then should the scriptures be fulfilled, that it be so?” At that hour Jesus said to the crowds, “Have you come out as against a robber, with swords and clubs to capture me? Day after day I sat in the temple teaching, and you did not seize me. But all this has taken place that the Scriptures of the prophets might be fulfilled.” – Matthew 26.52-56

Buying the sword was all about fulfilling scripture. As soon as Jesus and His disciples carried swords, their lives were threatened with swords. Jesus used this moment to teach a proverb about how violence usually provokes more violence: “All who take the sword will perish by the sword.” Jesus disarmed his disciples. Jesus disarmed all of us.

Jesus then used the opportunity to do good to His enemy.

And he touched his touched his ear and healed him. – Luke 22.51

Two swords were enough to fulfill Scripture.
Two swords were enough to be numbered among the transgressors.
Two swords were enough for Jesus to rebuke Peter for using violence for self-defense.
Two swords ere enough to give Jesus an opportunity to demonstrate the love we are to show our enemies.
Two swords were enough for Jesus to teach us that we should not use violence against our enemies.

The Impact of Jesus’ Teaching

Peter was as passionate about using force against evil as anybody can be. And yet, it seems that Jesus’ rebuke in the garden had a tremendous impact on Peter. Later in life, Peter would look back on that night and draw this conclusion:

For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. – 1 Peter 2.21-23

Jesus set an example of what it means to really entrust yourself to the One who judges justly. Jesus set an example of how to respond to enemies when faced with imminent danger. Jesus showed us how to love our enemies and resist not the one who is evil. And Jesus expects us to follow in His steps.

The Sermon on the Mount and Politics

We cannot serve Jesus while at the same time seeking political solutions, which of necessity rely on principles which contradict those of Jesus’s kingdom. In “The Sermon on the Mount” (Mt. 5-7), Jesus taught that the principles of the kingdom of heaven are visibly and obviously different from the principles of earthly kingdoms. He called the citizens of His kingdom to be the “salt of the earth” and to be a “light to the world” (Mt. 5.13-14).

It is essential that Christians live differently from the world. If we lose our distinction, we will fail to influence the world as the salt and light that God has called us to be. 

If the salt becomes tasteless, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled under food by men. – Matthew 5.13

Therefore we shouldn’t be surprised if Jesus’ teachings sound somewhat strange, offensive, contradictory to common wisdom, or even foolish. The fact that His teachings are different from everyday thinking is precisely the point Jesus is trying to make.

The Sermon on the Mount and Violence

There is no government on earth that practices, or could practice the principles taught by Jesus. As we read the Sermon on the Mount, we come across some of Jesus’s teaching on violence and the Christian’s attitude toward it.

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 the right cheek, turn the other to him also… 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… 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? – Matthew 5.39-47

As we should expect, these are some very strange teachings. Christianity is different. Other kingdoms on earth tolerate, and sometimes encourage retaliation. And here in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus brings up retaliation for the specific purpose of prohibiting it.

Here He sets forth a clear and broad difference between the spirit of retaliation and the spirit of Christianity. Living according to this difference is not just a minor side point in Jesus’s sermon that can be ignored; it is at the very heart of the theme of His sermon.

And what’s more, Jesus doesn’t simply address the outward action of retaliation. He speaks to the very heart of the matter. The section on retaliation is part of a larger section in which Jesus addressed common everyday understandings of the law (“You have heard that it was said…”), and then immediately gives a teaching that applies directly to the heart (“But I say unto you…”). For instance, when Jesus addressed adultery (Mt. 5.27-30), He condemned not only adultery, but also lust. The principles Jesus taught do not simply refer to the outward act, but also forbid the passion itself. His teachings attach guilt no only to the conduct, but also to the thought.

In another teaching, Jesus forbade not only murder, but also hateful feelings such as resentment or revenge which lead to murder (Mt. 5.21-22). When these unholy motives and intentions are prohibited, the very spirit of violent force towards our enemies is destroyed. Violent force towards our enemies cannot be encouraged or allowed if that which is necessary for that violent force is prohibited. Jesus’ disciples are taught in this sermon that all such attitudes that promote violence towards  enemies are prohibited in His kingdom.

According to everyday wisdom at that time, violence towards enemies was permitted. Jesus directly contradicts this mindset when He says “Love your enemies”. Loving our enemies is contrary to desiring harm upon them. By desiring to use force against our enemies we are violating one of the fundamental principles of Jesus’s teaching.

The tax collectors and gentiles demonstrated a similar set of ethics as the Jews. They preached the importance of love, but they limited their love to those who were deserving of it. If a person was wicked enough, they were seen as no longer deserving of their love. If a Christian decides that certain enemies are just too wicked to be loved, they have become no different from the rest of the world; they have lost their flavor as salt.

The Sermon on the Mount and the Civil State

Christians cannot serve the Kingdom of God and the kingdoms of men. The principles taught by Jesus are contrary to the principles that are, and of necessity must be, practiced in every human government on earth. No nation on earth would survive very long if it refused to resist its enemies. First, there would be no military forces to maintain a country’s strength. Subsequently, the nation would not be able to enforce its laws upon its citizens. The implied force that lies behind all political solutions and legislation would be destroyed. (If you don’t believe all political solutions are a demonstration of force, just refuse to obey a law and see what happens).

The mindset that is necessary for the maintenance of a strong country is opposed to the mindset that is taught by Jesus. The two mindsets cannot dwell at the same time inside the same person. You cannot be gentle, forgiving, responding to evil with good, turning the other cheek, praying for your persecutors, and at the same time execute wrath and vengeance upon evil doers as God has ordained governing authorities to do (Romans 13.1-7).

Jesus understood this to be the case. He understood that the principles of Sermon on the Mount could not be kept among those who try to serve two masters.

No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth. – Matthew 6.24

Satan is the god of this world. To serve wealth is to serve Satan. Wealth is served in the kingdoms of this world. Jesus teaches that we cannot serve both.

 “Jesus Didn’t Really Mean That”

Many will be quick to point out that Jesus never intended for his sermon to be applied to governments. In this observation, they are correct. After all, Jesus didn’t go to Rome to preach this lesson to Caesar and his guards, and He didn’t preach the sermon to the U.S. Government.

He preached the sermon to those who were to be a part of His kingdom, and He expected His teachings to apply to every aspect of their lives. Therefore it wouldn’t make any sense to suggest that the Sermon on the Mount is fine to apply to individual Christians, unless those Christians decided to become involved in political action, in which case they would be exempted from these expectations.

Consider these words from Martin Luther, the great Reformer (who in many regards should be praised as a hero). From his commentary on the Sermon on the Mount, Martin Luther wrote:

Thus we read of many holy martyrs, who under infidel emperors and lords have gone forth to war, when summoned, and in all good conscience have struck right and left and killed, just as others, so that in this respect there was no difference between Christians and heathen; and yet they did nothing contrary to this text. For they did it not as Christians, for their own person, but as obedient members and subjects, under obligation to secular person and authority. But if you are free and not obligated to such secular authority, then you have here a different rule, as a different person.

Wait, what? Christians are no “different than heathens”? For “they did it not as Christians… but as obedient members and subjects, under obligation to secular person and authority”?

Is Jesus not to be the Lord over every part of our lives? Would this logic make sense if applied to other activities in life? For example, consider if this quote were applied to lifeguarding.

Some Christians, while working as lifeguards have looked at immodestly dressed women and lusted after them, and in this respect there was no difference between Christians and heathen; yet they did nothing contrary to this text. For they did it not as Christians, but as lifeguards who were faithfully doing their jobs under obligation to their secular bosses.

Or apply this logic to a lawyer…

Some Christians, while working as lawyers, have told lies, and in this respect there was no difference between Christians and heathen; yet they did nothing contrary to this text. For they did it not as Christians, but as lawyers who were faithfully doing their jobs under obligation to their secular clients.

We wouldn’t use this logic towards other walks of life. Why would we apply it to Jesus’ teachings about retaliation and loving our enemies? Jesus never adds any qualifiers to these statements. He did not intend for them to apply to certain parts of our lives and not to other parts.

A Christian might be a lifeguard, but a Christian lifeguard should never lust. A Christian might be a lawyer, but a Christian lawyer should never lie. A Christian might live as a citizen under secular authorities, but a Christian citizen should never retaliate, resist evil with evil, or hate his enemies.

The Sermon on the Mount was not addressed to human governments, but it does apply to every Christian in every aspect of their lives. To seek political solutions to lose our distinctiveness; that is, to cease to be salt and light.

Words of Comfort and Warning

 Therefore everyone who hears these words of Mine and acts on them, may be compared to a wise man who built his house on the rock. – Matthew 7.24

Jesus concludes by teaching that those who live according to the principles of God’s kingdom will stand forever. Those who do not will be overcome in destruction. The kingdom which was established by God will never fall. The kingdoms which are in the world will be destroyed along with those who live according to their way of life.

The kingdom Jesus established does not need the right political party, strong political victories, strong law enforcement, constitutionally protected rights, strong military strength, or a strong economy to prosper. If Jesus can overcome the cross, Christians can rest assured that the gates of hell (much less a bad earthly government), will not prevail against His church.

Tough Questions Concerning Romans 13

Romans 13:1-7 is a passage that invites several tough questions. It is my intent to explore some of these questions and perhaps offer a few answers regarding this difficult text. Hopefully, these questions will draw us closer to the truth, but sometimes we have to set with the questions before we can see the truth clearly. Of course, this will only happen if we approach this section of Scripture with open hearts and open minds.

Who is Paul’s intended audience?

We must begin by acknowledging that we see Romans 13 through a particular lens. The vast majority of people who live in America love this country. We have no problem with Romans 13 because we are a patriotic people. We have pride in our nation, and we want to trust our government. We must keep in mind that Romans 13 was not written solely for Christians living in 21st America. It was originally written to Christians living in the Roman empire. This was a government that at times persecuted Christians and enforced emperor worship. This text was also written for Christians living in communist China. It was written for Christians who are living in the middle east under sharia law. Whatever this passage says about America, it also says about these other countries. We cannot apply it one way when we are talking about a good and decent government, and another way when we are discussing a government bent on evil.

What is commanded of Christians in Romans 13?

This passage centers on one commandment. It is the first sentence in verse one. Paul writes, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities.” Everything that follows is an expansion or explanation of this one statement. To submit to someone or something means we yield to them. It means we give up some right, privilege, desire, etc. we have in order to serve a bigger cause. Submission implies doing something we would not ordinarily do. If we were going to do it anyway, then we aren’t truly submitting. The command to submit to the governing authorities is broad. It could mean many different things. When Peter gives similar instructions in 1 Peter 2:13-17, he specifically mentions the emperor and governors. It could be that Christians in the first century were leery about submitting themselves to someone like Pilate or Nero. Zealots argued for open rebellion, but both Peter and Paul give instructions for another way. Paul specifically mentions paying taxes (13:6-7). Some Christians may have wondered why they should give their hard-earned money to a government that does not respect them and at times persecutes them. The answer is that Christians are called to be peacemakers (Rom. 12:14-21). We are to be good citizens even when we may not like it. We are not to fight power with power. The Zealots fought power with power and lost. Christians sought peace and Christianity flourished.

Does Romans 13 offer justification for a Christian to serve in war or participate in the death penalty?

Romans 13 associates violence with government. Violence is part of the fallen world in which we live. Governments are responsible for wars, capital punishment, etc. Governments maintain some sense of order through violence and order is preferred over chaos. Anarchy would invite even more violence. Although violence exists and at times may serve some sort of purpose, is Paul giving his blessing for Christians to participate in this violence? In this passage, Paul speaks about the government and the role of the Christian under the government. He does not address the role of the Christian within the government. If someone wants to use this passage as justification for Christians serving in war or participating in the death penalty, then there are some serious questions one must consider first.

Would it have been alright for a Christian to participate in the executions of Jesus, Paul, Peter, or any other Christian that was put to death by the Roman government?

Does Romans 13 authorize a Christian to participate in an unjust war? If not, then why not?

Romans 13 was written for Christians living under all governments. This means it was written for German Christians and British Christians in WWII. Does this mean a German Christian would be equally justified for following Romans 13 as a British Christian?

Paul is specifically speaking about the Roman government in Romans 13. He wanted Christians to respect the government and not rebel against it. He wanted them to pay their taxes, but this was also a government involved in evil, and they would later be punished for it by God. The book of Revelation is about God’s judgment on Rome. It is evident that although Christians are to live peaceably under the Roman government, God does not approve of all the actions of the Roman government.

Does Romans 13 mean I should do anything the government commands?

No! How do we know this? The man who wrote Romans 13 was put to death by the Roman government. We can assume that Paul paid his taxes, obeyed the laws to the best of his ability, etc., but there were some compromises Paul refused to make. Romans 13 describes a system in which God is the ultimate authority. God will tear down and build up governments. God is the authority we must obey above all else.

What does loving my enemy have to do with Romans 13?

Context is important. The one thing that has caused the most problems in interpreting Romans 13 is its separation from Romans 12. Often people will try to say something about Romans 13 without ever considering Romans 12. In Romans 13, Paul commands us to submit to the government and pay our taxes, but in Romans 12, he gives us many more commands. We are to bless anyone who persecutes us (12:14). We are to repay no one evil for evil (12:17). We are to live peaceably with all (12:18). We are never to avenge ourselves but leave vengeance to God (12:19). We are to feed our enemies and give them something to drink (12:20). Whatever Romans 13 means, it cannot contradict the commands Paul has just given. I do not think this is an issue as long as we understand Romans 13 as instructions on how a Christian should live under the government, not within the government.

We should notice that Romans 13 is situated between commands for us to love others (12:9-10; 13:8). At the end of Paul’s instructions regarding Christians and government, he makes the following statement.

Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. – Romans 13.1-8

The one thing Christians should be known for is love. If our interpretation of Romans 13 takes us away from this end, then we have not interpreted it correctly, and we should take another look. Governments will come and go, but the kingdom of God will stand forever. The ethics of governments vary drastically, but the ethic of the kingdom of God is love. Let us make sure we are devoting ourselves to the right ethic.

Originally published by Start2Finish and republished with their permission.
Scott Elliott is a graduate of Oklahoma State University and Austin Graduate School of Theology. He lives in La Grange, TX and is the minister for the La Grange Church of Christ. He is married and has two sons. He enjoys writing about the Christian faith and posting the occasional film review. His articles and reviews have appeared in RELEVANT magazine, Englewood Review of Books, and other publications.
Scripture quotations are from The ESV Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version).

Hear the Song of My People

In every American college football game at least two different songs can be heard. The first song, the National Anthem, is played before the game starts. The second song is the home team’s fight song, and will likely be played multiple times throughout the contest. Why do we play these songs? These songs are designed to encourage and unify the people behind one common purpose. The words and the melodies of these songs remind the people of who they are, what side they are on, what they stand for, and what they stand against. These songs serve as rallying calls.

The children of God have a “song” which they sing. They have a rallying call. They have a common purpose, a common value, a common trait which runs through all that they say and do. Our song is love; true and genuine love. Jesus, when summing up the greatest commandment, put it this way: “’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the great and foremost commandment. The second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets’” (Matt. 22.36-40). Paul puts it simply, “Let love be without hypocrisy” (Rom. 12.9).

Christian love is more than simply a claimed love; it is a love that is lived. Christian love is more than just a talked about love; it is a deep emotional love. Christian love is more than just a theological teaching; it is the very core of who we are. Christian love is not just a natural emotional occurrence that is felt as relationships are developed with our neighbors; it is a love that we strive to achieve even when we are mistreated, hated and persecuted. Love is a thread that runs through everything we say and do. True, genuine love is our song. It calls us to one purpose. It unites us. It encourages us. It reminds us of who we are, what we stand for, and what we stand against. Love is the song of God’s people.

Genuine Love

In Romans 12, Paul expounds upon the way this genuine love is seen in our lives. In verses 7-9, Paul instructs Christians to use our varying gifts accordingly. When we use the gift of serving, we must put that service in to action. If our gift is exhortation, we must exhort. When we give, we must give liberally. When we exercise leadership, we must lead with diligence. When we do acts of mercy, we must do them with cheerfulness. So also, when we love, we must continually demonstrate the genuineness of our love, just as Paul describes in verses 9-12:

Let love be without hypocrisy. Abhor what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in brotherly love; give preference to one another  in honor; not lagging behind in diligence, fervent in spirit, serving the Lord; rejoicing in hope, persevering in tribulation, devoted in prayer, contributing to the needs of the saints, practicing hospitality.

Love must ALWAYS be genuine, sincere, and most importantly, put into action.

Christians must never be heard saying, “I abhor evil, but…”, “I love my brethren, but…”, “I know we have a better hope, but…”, “Yes, we must patiently persevere tribulation, but…” “Yes, we must care for the poor, but…”, “Yes, our homes should be used for hospitality, but…”, “Yes, we must love our enemies, but…”. There are no “ifs”, “ands” or “buts” about it! The Holy Spirit commanded that our love must be without hypocrisy! Love must never be reduced to something we talk about, but refrain from putting into action. It doesn’t cut it to simply say “Of course I love my brethren” or “Of course I love my enemies”. Christian love must be  put into action in our words, in our thoughts, in our emotions and in our actions.

Love for our Brethren

When it comes to our brethren, our love must characterize us so completely that we are never tempted to “fake it.” Not only must we have “agape” love for one another (v. 9), we must also have “brotherly love” for one another (v. 10). That is, our love must be not only a commitment to love, but we must also cultivate and develop those feelings of brotherly affection. It is a love that must affect our very preferences: “give preference to one another in honor.” We must fervently throw ourselves into our service towards one another as we serve the Lord (v. 11). The hope we have together surpasses even the most severe and depressing of earthly trials, hardships, disappointments and frustrations (v. 12). Therefore when those trials come our way, we can persevere, all l because of the “song” we keep singing. And when we see our brethren going through those hard times, the devotion of our love must show through in our constant prayer, generous giving, and warm hospitality.

We sing this song together. We rejoice together. We weep together. We suffer together. We persevere together. We have this same mind towards one another (vs. 14-15). Paul continues, “Do not be haughty in mind, but associate with the lowly” (v. 15). When we are more concerned about ourselves, we cannot show the kind of love Paul describes. Notice how Jesus puts it in Luke 23.25-26:

And He said to them, ‘The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who have authority over them are called ‘Benefactors.’ But it is not this way with you, but the one who is the greatest among you must become like the youngest and the leader like the servant.

If our minds seek after highly respected places in this life, we will never be great in God’s eyes. The song of God’s people is not greatness or power or respectability. The song that calls us together is “love.”

Love for our Enemies

Showing love towards our brethren is not the only kind of love Paul speaks of in Romans 12. In verses 14-21, Paul challenges us to take our love to a completely different level as he challenges us to love our enemies.

“Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse” (v. 14). The same thing was taught by Christ himself when he commanded us to “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 (Matt. 5.44-45). Yes, a Christian can (and must) continue to “abhor what is evil”, but we must deal with the evil man with love, so as to lead him to what is right. Responding to evil with good is not optional. It is something the disciples of Christ must do. If when we are reviled, we revile in return, and if when we suffer, we threaten the lives of our enemies, we are not following in the steps of Christ (1 Pet. 2. 21-23).

“Never pay back evil for evil to anyone” (v. 17). The Holy Spirit didn’t say “Most of the time, it is wrong to pay back evil for evil”, nor he did say “Never pay back evil to evil, unless you are dealing with someone who is really evil, like a terrorist or something”. He said “never pay back evil for evil to anyone. Respect what is right in the sight of all men. If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men” (vs. 17-18). That’s genuine love. That kind of concern for our enemies is the kind of love that identifies the followers of Christ.

What is the Christian responsibility for peace? If it is in our ability, it is our responsibility. We must use anything and everything in our power to strive for peace, even with wicked men. We must be willing to sacrifice everything, even our own lives. The only thing we cannot and must not sacrifice for the sake of peace is our faithfulness to the Lord and our firm stance for His truth.

This is not to suggest that Paul desired that we simply stand by and allow wicked men to have their way. (Any interpretation that would aid wickedness would certainly be an odd understanding of Scripture). Christian love should not eliminate the desire for justice. If anything, Christian love should enhance our compassion for the victims of evil. Righteous judgment is one of the great attributes of the God we serve!

Paul, in discussing our genuine love, embraces the idea of the wrath and vengeance against evil. Yet he is very clear that the execution of justice is not the responsibility of Christians themselves. “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.” The Holy Spirit admonishes us be patient in tribulation. As we witness evil, and our desire for revenge arises, be patient! Vengeance WILL be executed! “I will repay” is the promise of our Lord. As is explained in Romans 13, God in His overruling authority uses governments as his minister for doing this very thing. But the words of Romans 12:19 couldn’t be clearer; it is our responsibility to leave vengeance in the hands of God. It is our responsibility to love our enemies.

Love Wins

We must never forget that we are in a war; not a physical war against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, and against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places. The question is this: will we overcome evil, or will we be overcome by evil? The answer to this question depends on our faith in the strategy given to us in Romans 12. 20-21.

But if your enemy is hungry, feed him, and if he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in so doing you will heap burning coals on his head. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil by good.

If we love our enemies, if we do kindness to them, if we feed them when they are hungry, if we give them drink when they are thirsty, we have the promise their evil will be overcome. But if we forget our song, if we forget our purpose, if we forget our rallying call, if we forget that true, genuine love, the Holy Spirit warns us that we will be overcome by evil.

Love is our song. It is our purpose. It is our rallying call. It is what identifies us as followers of Christ. We must never stop singing that song.