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The question of whether or not Jesus had anything to do with violence is one that has been debated for centuries. On the one hand, Jesus is often portrayed as a peaceful, loving figure who preached nonviolence and compassion towards others. On the other hand, there are instances in the Bible where Jesus appears to condone or even participate in violent behavior. In this article, we will explore both sides of the argument and examine the evidence for and against Jesus’ involvement in violence.
Firstly, let us examine the case for Jesus’ nonviolent nature. There are many instances in the Bible where Jesus is shown to have advocated for peace and nonviolence. For example, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus famously said, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God” (Matthew 5:9). He also taught his followers to turn the other cheek when they were wronged, rather than seeking revenge (Matthew 5:39). These teachings are often cited as evidence of Jesus’ pacifist beliefs.
Furthermore, Jesus’ actions during his ministry seem to support this interpretation. When he was arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus rebuked one of his disciples for using a sword to defend him, saying, “Put your sword back in its place, for all who draw the sword will die by the sword” (Matthew 26:52). This incident suggests that Jesus did not believe in using violence to achieve his goals.
Finally, there is the fact that Jesus himself was a victim of violence. He was betrayed by one of his disciples, arrested by the authorities, and sentenced to death by crucifixion. Throughout this ordeal, Jesus did not resist or fight back, but instead endured his suffering with patience and humility. This is often cited as evidence of his commitment to nonviolence.
However, there are also instances in the Bible where Jesus appears to condone or even participate in violent behavior. For example, in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus is quoted as saying, “But now if you have a purse, take it, and also a bag; and if you don’t have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one” (Luke 22:36). This statement has been interpreted by some scholars as a call to arms, suggesting that Jesus was preparing his disciples for a violent uprising against the Roman authorities.
Jesus did not instruct his followers to carry weapons for self-defense or protection. In fact, when his disciples brought swords on the night of his betrayal, Jesus used the opportunity to teach them a valuable lesson: “Those who live by the sword will die by the sword.” This message emphasizes the importance of nonviolence and rejecting the use of force as a means of resolving conflicts. This bears repeating.
Jesus instructed his disciples to bring a sword as a teaching tool to demonstrate that they should not resort to violence, even in the face of an armed crowd (Luke 22:52). When Peter used one of the swords against the high priest’s slave, Jesus immediately intervened and commanded him to put away his weapon. Jesus then expressed a core principle that continues to guide his followers today: “Those who live by the sword will die by the sword.” (Matthew 26:51-52) This statement underscores the importance of nonviolence and rejecting the use of force to solve problems.
Similarly, in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus is depicted as overturning the tables of the money changers in the temple, driving them out with a whip (Matthew 21:12-13). This act of violence is often cited as evidence that Jesus was not a pacifist but was willing to use force to achieve his goals.
Matthew’s account of Jesus’ actions in the temple differs slightly from Mark’s. Matthew doesn’t mention the night between Jesus’ arrival at the temple and his subsequent actions, which Mark does. This omission makes the connection between the two events more direct, but it’s important to note that Jesus’ actions were not impulsive but deliberate. The scene takes place in the Court of the Gentiles, an area around the temple proper where a market for sacrificial goods was established. This market was sanctioned by the priestly authorities and was necessary for providing animals for sacrifice and the Tyrian currency required for temple dues. Jesus’ actions were not directed specifically at the traders, but at all who bought and sold. This suggests that Jesus was rejecting the whole system of sacrificial worship that had become a commercial enterprise and that he was claiming the right to declare that this system was no longer acceptable to God.
This was a dramatic and symbolic act, indicating that something greater than the temple was present. It’s unlikely that any lasting change was achieved, as the tables likely returned the following week, and Jesus took no further action. However, the authorities understood the point that Jesus was making and recognized that he was positioning himself as a religious authority who rejected the existing system.
So, what can we make of these conflicting portrayals of Jesus? One possible interpretation is that Jesus’ nonviolence was not absolute but rather was situational. In other words, he believed in nonviolence as a general principle but was willing to make exceptions in certain circumstances. For example, he may have believed that violence was justified in cases where innocent people were being oppressed or when the truth was being distorted.
On this Mark Durie writes,
The conquest of Canaan, as described in the Bible, was a bloody one. Some cities like Jericho were put to the sword. Isn’t it dangerous to have such material in the Bible? Might not these stories incite Christians to acts of bloodshed or even genocide against others? The answer to this question is a very emphatic “No!”
There are a number of reasons why the conquest of Canaan and other stories of conflict in the Bible do not incite Christians into violent acts of insurrection, murder and genocide.
One is that the account of the conquest of Canaan was entirely situation-specific. Yes, there is a divine instruction reported in the Bible to take the land by force and occupy it, driving out the inhabitants (Nm 33:52). However, this was not an eternal permission to believers to wage war. It was for a specific time and place. According to the Bible, the Canaanites had come under divine judgment because of their religious practices, above all child sacrifice (Dt 18:10–12; see note on Gn 15:16).
The sacrificing of firstborn children by immolating them before an idol was a persistent trait of Canaanite religion. The Phoenicians were Canaanites, and as late as the second century b.c. the people of Carthage, a Phoenician colony, were sacrificing children to their goddess Tanit. Archeologists have found charred remains of tens of thousands of newborn infants and fetuses buried in Carthage. The practice of child sacrifice made the Romans despise the Carthaginians.
The Bible’s stories of the use of force against the Canaanites are more than balanced by the accounts of the destruction of Israel and Judah by foreign armies. These violent invasions are also described as being God’s judgment, now turned against the Israelites because they did not distance themselves from Canaanite religious practices. Even the kings of Israel and Judah are charged with practicing child sacrifice (2 Kg 17:17; 21:6, Ezk 16:21).
Although the OT does condone the use of force to purge a land of violence and injustice, the Bible’s attitude to such violence is not that it is sacred or holy. On the contrary, King David, who fought many wars with God’s active support and guidance, was not allowed to be the one to build God’s temple in Jerusalem, because there was so much blood on his hands (1 Ch 28:3).
Violence is regarded by the Bible as an inherently evil symptom of the corruption of the whole earth after the fall: “the earth was filled with violence” (Gn 6:11). In contrast, the prophet Isaiah looked forward to the day when the days of violence would be no more. Isaiah describes the Lord’s anointed as unacquainted with violence: “They made His grave with the wicked, and with a rich man at His death, although He had done no violence and had not spoken deceitfully” (Is 53:9).
In this way the OT sets the scene for the revelation of Jesus Christ. The key question for Christians is “What did Jesus have to do with violence?” When we turn to consider Jesus and His followers, we find a systematic rejection of religious violence. Jesus’ message was that His kingdom would be spiritual and not political. Jesus explicitly and repeatedly condemns the use of force to achieve His goals: “Put your sword back in place because all who take up a sword will perish by a sword” (Mt 26:52)
As Jesus went to the cross, He renounced force, even at the cost of His own life: “My kingdom is not of this world … If My kingdom were of this world, My servants would fight, so that I wouldn’t be handed over to the Jews. As it is, My kingdom does not have its origin here” (Jn 18:36).
At one point Christ said, “Don’t assume that I came to bring peace on the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.” (Mt 10:34) This is sometimes cited by anti-Christian apologists as evidence for Jesus’ militancy, but the statement occurs in an extended passage where Jesus is advising His disciples on the inevitability of persecution. The sword He refers to is the one which will be raised against them.
Jesus’ take on violence was reinforced by the apostles Paul and Peter, who urged Christians to show consideration to their enemies, renounce retaliation, live peaceably, return cursing with blessing, and show humility to others (Rm 12:14–21; Ti 3:1–2; 1 Pt 2:20–24). They also allowed that the (most likely pagan) civil authorities would need to use force to keep the peace and this role should be respected (Rm 13:1–7; 1 Pt 2:13–17). This was an extension of the earlier Jewish position that Jews should submit to the rule of law in whichever country they find themselves, even if the king was a pagan (Jr 29:4–7).
The NT supports the just use of force as a proper function of the state, whatever its religious identity. Thus it is not a specifically religious or sacred act to go to war or to use force to implement justice. It is just a matter of public duty, one aspect of the ordering of society which God has established for the common good. Fighting may be considered just, not because it is advancing any one faith over another, but because it is warranted and conducted according to principles of justice applicable to all people.
If only Christians had maintained this NT position down the centuries, the world would have been a better place. The invention of “Christendom” in the fourth Christian century, and the later influence of a centuries-long struggle against the Islamic jihad, ultimately led Christians to develop aberrant theologies that regarded warfare against non-Christians as “holy,” and soldiers who died fighting in such wars were regarded as “martyrs.” Thankfully, this view of warfare has been universally denounced in the modern era as incompatible with the gospel of Christ. – Mark Durie, “What Did Jesus Have to Do with Violence?,” in The Apologetics Study Bible: Real Questions, Straight Answers, Stronger Faith, ed. Ted Cabal et al. (Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 2007), 330–331.
Jesus was not a pacifist, and Christians should not be pacificists either. We would defend ourselves or others. We believe that self-defense is permissible, but only to the extent that it is necessary to protect oneself or others from harm. We do not believe in seeking revenge or in using violence as a means of resolving conflicts. Jesus was a peaceful and nonviolent figure who advocated for love, compassion, and forgiveness. We believe that his teachings on nonviolence are clear and unambiguous and that his behavior during his ministry is evidence of his commitment to nonviolence.