An Excerpt from The Bible in Government and Society (by Christopher Cone, TSP, 2012), republished with permission.

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On March 6, 1927 Bertrand Russell presented a lecture to the South London Branch of the National Secular Society. Throughout the talk, which he entitled, “Why I am not a Christian,” Russell critiqued Christianity on a number of bases. One critique in particular was aimed at Christians who Russell thought were not following Jesus very closely:

I think that there are a good many points upon which I agree with Christ a great deal more than the professing Christians do. I do not know that I could go with Him al the way, but I could go with Him much further than most professing Christians can. You will remember that he said: “Resist not evil, but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.” That is not a new precept or a new principle. It was used by Lao-Tse and Buddha some 500 or 600 years before Christ, but it is not a principle which as a matter of fact Christians accept. I have no doubt that the present Prime Minister, for instance, is a most sincere Christian, but I should not advise any of you to go and smite him on one cheek. I think you might find that he thought this text was intended in a figurative sense.[1]

Specifically, Russell refers to Matthew 5:39, a passage from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. This verse and those in its immediate context (vv.38-45) have often been used to support the idea that Jesus was a pacifist and was opposed even to the idea of self defense. Ghandi has been quoted as saying, “The only people who do not see Christ and His teachings as nonviolent are Christians.”[2] Are Russell and Ghandi correct in their assertions that Jesus was promoting pacifism, or was Jesus teaching something else in His Matthew 5 message?

In earlier chapters we discussed the importance of considering the context of Jesus’ words. He wasn’t speaking in a vacuum, and his audience understood, at least in a general sense, what God required in regard to killing, self-defense, and war. Jesus’ audience would have understood that there is “a time to kill and a time to heal” (Eccl 3:3), and “a time for war and a time for peace” (3:8). They would have known of the sanctity of human life and the consequence for violating it: “Whoever sheds man’s blood by man his blood shall be shed, for in the image of God He made man” (Gen 9:6).

They would have also known that within the confines of the Mosaic covenant (and not extending beyond it) the death penalty was prescribed for other offenses besides murder (e.g., Ex 21:15-17). Also within that covenant the nation of Israel was used as an instrument of God’s judgment against the Canaanite nations and was commanded to drive out the nations from Canaan (Ex 23:31-33, Num 33:52), and if they didn’t go willingly, Israel was to utterly destroy every last one that remained (Deut 7:2). Further, the Mosaic law provided significant defenses for those under its jurisdiction, but did not directly address the issue of self-defense, though it did account for situations where it was possible for a person to kill in self-defense (Ex 21:13, Deut 19:4-10). In such instances the one who killed in self-defense would not forfeit his or her own life. Also, if at night a person was killed in the act of thievery, the property defender was not guilty, whereas if during the day a person was killed in the same act, the property defender was guilty (Ex 22:2-3). One might wonder if the different standards for night and day had anything to do with the greater difficulty at night of determining whether an intruder seeks to harm person or simply property. In any case, under certain circumstances (at night) a person was allowed to defend property with deadly force.

Except for the universal and lasting death penalty mandate (Gen 9:6), all of these regulations pertained exclusively to those under the jurisdiction of the Mosaic covenant. In that context there was no lack of clarity regarding God’s perspective of self-defense and war – they were both allowed for, and in some cases were even mandated. It should be noted that revenge was not allowed (Lev 19:18, Deut 32:35-43), and that even in the Mosaic covenant, the death penalty was a means of purification, not revenge (Deut 21:21).

When Jesus began His earthly ministry, the Mosaic economy was still in force. He came proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom (Mt 4:17), and maintained that throughout His earthly ministry until that message was rejected with finality by that generation (Mt 12-13). After that point, He began to teach in parables to veil the truth of the kingdom from those who had already rejected it (Mt 13:10-17). Jesus’ kingdom message was grounded in the Davidic covenant (2 Sam 7:8-17), and was not designed to fit within the framework of the Mosaic one. This kingdom was God’s eternal, spiritual kingdom which was to come to earth in a manifestation described and promised to David. Jesus used the Mosaic economy to illustrate Israel’s need for a new economy (Gal 3:24), one that would accommodate the kingdom of their Messiah. It is in this context that we understand His Sermon on the Mount – it was part of his proclamation of the gospel of the kingdom to that generation of Israelites.

In proclaiming this message, Jesus explains that He came not to tear down or destroy (katalusai) the Law and Prophets, but to fulfill them (Mt 5:17), adding that nothing would pass away from the law until all is accomplished (5:18). Consequently, the Law should continue to be taught (5:19), though not to place people under its jurisdiction once it is fulfilled. Even after Christ fulfills the Mosaic covenant, it still serves an important purpose and is to be used properly (Gal 3:23-25). After Jesus reminds His listeners of the lasting value of the Law, he explains that the righteousness needed to enter the kingdom of heaven is greater than that demonstrated by simply restricting certain behaviors, and He taught that external obedience without internal character was not enough to enter the kingdom (e.g., 5:21, 28, 32, 34, 39).

There was to be a new kingdom in Israel, and it would be accompanied by a new moral economy. If as interpreters we fail to understand the systems (dispensations, if you will) and context with which Christ was working, then we reduce Him simply to a religious philosopher whose words often are inconsistent and even contradictory. However, if we understand that Jesus was offering to Israel a new kingdom, to fulfill an earlier promise (of a literal earthly manifestation of an eternal spiritual kingdom), and that new kingdom required a new economy (specifically, a new covenant that would resolve the sin issue for Israel once and for all, see Jer 31:27-34), then we can grasp how Jesus viewed such issues as we are discussing in this context – self-defense and even war.

In arguing that Jesus was a pacifist, advocates of that view will often refer to Matthew 5:39, but few recognize the contribution made by the verse immediately preceding. Verse 38 reads, “”You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth…”” Jesus is quoting from a section of the Mosaic Law which has to do with consequences and penalties (not self-defense). Exodus 21:23-25 reads, “But if there is any further injury, then you shall appoint as a penalty life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.” When Jesus invokes this passage, He is addressing how this audience should handle things when a wrong has been done to them. Rather than to seek a just penalty as allowed by the Law, they were not to resist or oppose (anistenai) the offender, but instead should offer grace (39-42). We cannot fairly extrapolate his words to mean that a person should not defend oneself, or to mean that there was never a justifiable cause for fighting. Jesus elsewhere acknowledged that the sword had appropriate purpose, but in the Sermon on the Mount, His concern is the attitude and thinking of those who would wish to participate in the kingdom of heaven, and in vv. 38-39 He specifically addresses attitudes toward consequences and penalties.

In John 2:14-15 Jesus fashioned a weapon (a whip) and drove out those who were selling and the moneychangers in the temple. That He used a whip implies at least the threat of bodily harm for those who did not surrender to His demands. Importantly, we should recognize that He is not modeling for us to do the same – who He was came with certain prerogatives, and we aren’t Him. Nonetheless, His behavior in that instance was hardly pacifist. In Matthew 10:34-36 He describes how He bears a sword, drawing division between relatives and causing enemies to rise up in one’s own household (He quotes Mic 7:6). In Luke 22:36 He charges His disciples “whoever has no sword is to sell his coat and buy one.” Since Jesus would be “numbered with transgressors” (Lk 22:37 and Is 53:12), it seems He recognized His followers would come under attack, and further, it seems He was allowing for them to defend themselves.

In Luke 21:12-19, it seems Jesus is commissioning His disciples not to defend themselves. He describes how His followers, before the end, will be persecuted and arrested and brought before kings and governors for an opportunity to testify of Christ (21:12-13). Jesus says, “so make up your minds not to prepare beforehand to defend yourselves, for I will give you utterance and wisdom which none of your opponents will be able to resist or refute” (21:14). Literally, they are told to set their hearts not to plan ahead for their defense. This is not in respect to the arrests themselves, which would be occasions for the disciples to stand before kings and governors, but rather it refers to the apologeia – the verbal defense when the disciples would stand before the rulers. The reason they should make no preparations for their verbal defense is described in verse 15 – Jesus would give them what they would need. Note that Peter did not regard these as instructions applicable to every believer, because he charges that believers, in the face of persecution should be always ready to make an apologeia – a defense, for the hope that is within (1 Pet 3:13-17). Jesus was preparing His disciples for the difficulties to come, and even when He told them not to plan for their verbal defenses when they stood before kings, He allowed for them to have swords.

Paul taught that government was entrusted the sword by God for very specific purposes (Rom 13:3-4), and never prohibited believers from serving in government (or from bearing the sword). When soldiers asked John the Baptist what they should do to bear fruit in keeping with repentance, John replied, “Do not take money from anyone by force, or accuse anyone falsely, and be content with your wages” (Lk 3:14). John did not tell them to leave their military posts, but acknowledged that they could be godly men and still bear the sword.

The Scriptures seem clear in their permissiveness of self-defense and their allowance for the appropriate use of the sword in government. But in regard to the specifics of when, how and to what extent one should defend themselves or fight for a just cause, the Scriptures do not directly prescribe in great detail. We must rely on Biblical principles properly applied if we wish to confidently discern what God would have us do in such situations.

For example, 1 Corinthians 6:19-20 tells us that the believer’s body (soma) is a temple of the Holy Spirit, and consequently we should glorify God in our bodies. In some instances, perhaps that is best done by selling a coat and buying a sword. In other cases, perhaps that is best accomplished by turning the other cheek. Also, In 1 Timothy 5:8 we are reminded that “if anyone does not provide for his own, and especially for those of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.” How can one follow those instructions – to provide, have foresight, or to care for (pronoei) without being willing to fight for the protection of those entrusted to one’s care? That hardly seems possible. Further, in loving a neighbor as ourselves, can it sometimes be necessary to fight on their behalf and for their interest, just as we would look after our own? Certainly. What is more, in those circumstances, when we know it to be right and we do not act, that is sin (Jam 4:17). As believers, we are endowed with tremendous responsibilities and privileges in interacting with others. We should not forget them or treat them lightly.

So then, while we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, and especially to those who are of the household of the faith (Gal 6:10).

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 (Rom 12:17-21).

Pursue peace with all men, and the sanctification without which no one will see the Lord (Heb 12:14).


[1] Bertrand Russell, Why I Am Not a Christian and Other Essays on Religion and Related Subjects (New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, 1957), 14.

[2] Walter Wink, “Beyond Just War and Pacifism: Jesus’ Nonviolent Way” at http://www.cres.org/star/_wink.htm. Viewed 6/20/2012.

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