In the last blog post, I shared why I believe Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) points us to the position of Christian nonviolence. In this blog post, I’d like to begin widening our focus by examining the entirety of what the Gospels teach us about Jesus’ life, teachings, and ministry.
I’d like to provide an important caveat, however, before we dive in: I’m indebted to New Testament scholar Preston Sprinkle for most of the ideas found in this post. Chapters 6 and 7 of his book Fight were incredibly helpful in pointing out what the Gospels say about this subject. That’s why you will see him referenced and quoted throughout this post.
A Violent World
I’d like to first examine the world in which Jesus was born into and began his public ministry. Its important to know just how violent the world was in Jesus’ time. Some readers might not know this, but the 400 years of silence between the Old and New Testaments were full of violence. They “were anything but silent,” explains Preston Sprinkle, “as kingdom rose up against kingdom, nation warred against nation, and the Jewish people hacked their way to freedom with swords baptized in blood” (Fight, 115).
Two hundred years before Jesus, zealous Jews were led by Judas Maccabee and took up the sword to fight the Greeks who ruled over them. They killed thousands and established a kingdom through violent force. Their success, according to Sprinkle, “would shape the way Jewish people in Jesus’ day would understand–and anticipate–the kingdom of God” (Fight, 115).
During those 400 years (known as the “intertestamental period”), and during Jesus’ own earthly ministry, there were other violent revolts that sprung up as the Jewish people anticipated the coming of the promised messiah and the establishment of God’s promised kingdom. What they expected was a kingdom similar to other earthly kingdoms, a kingdom built on violence, bloodshed, and physical liberation from their enemies. So when Jesus came on the scene and immediately began announcing the arrival of God’s kingdom (Matthew 4:23; Mark 1:14-15), they figured that they knew what was coming. Little did they know, Jesus came announcing the arrival of an alternative kingdom, a kingdom not of this world.
A Kingdom Not of this World
In John 18:33-38, we see Jesus describing this kingdom to Pontius Pilate. Jesus is asked by Pilate, “are you the King of the Jews?” To which Jesus responds: “My kingdom is not of this world.” If Jesus would have stopped his reply there, it would have been difficult to know what he meant. Is he talking about an ethereal kingdom? Is he talking about a kingdom that we can’t see now but will someday see in the future? Fortunately, Jesus clarifies what he means by explaining to Pilate: “If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would fight (John 18:36 ESV). Violence, in other words, is inherently connected to the kingdoms of this world, but nonviolence lies at the heart of Jesus’ alternative kingdom.
A tendency for many of us is to regard Jesus’ kingdom as some spiritual, otherworldly reality where the saved go when they die. However, if that was all that Jesus was talking about, it seems obvious that (1) he wouldn’t have described his kingdom to Pilate in this way and (2) he would’ve chosen a different word than kingdom. As Sprinkle points out, the word kingdom, in this setting, is loaded–not with spiritual meaning–but with physical, this-worldly meaning (Fight, 119). To a first century Jewish audience, they wouldn’t have associated the word kingdom with some spiritual existence. They would have remembered the promises made to Abraham (Genesis 12), David (2 Samuel 7), Daniel (Daniel 2 and 7), and Zechariah (Zechariah 9:9) about a coming earthly kingdom and a coming earthly king. In other words, Jesus is using the word kingdom here for a reason, and the reason is because the kingdom that he had spent his whole three year ministry announcing and inaugurating is a rival earthly kingdom unlike the violent kingdoms of this world. It’s an earthly kingdom with citizens who don’t fight their enemies but instead love them.
Again, Sprinkle is helpful on this point:
Jesus means that His kingdom will not follow the script of all the other nation-like worldly kingdoms of history. Jesus’ kingdom will enact God’s reign on earth, which according to the prophets will speak peace to the nations, offer forgiveness to the undeserving, and extend love to neighbor and enemy alike. So the contrast between ‘of this world’ and ‘not of this world’ isn’t between a material versus spiritual reign, but between a worldly way and a godly way of reigning.Fight, 121
To a first century Jewish audience, this kingdom that Jesus announced and embodied would have been unthinkable. This is why, as I will now show, we see Jesus’ disciples consistently failing to grasp the nature of this nonviolent kingdom and its messiah.
Throughout the Gospels, we see Jesus’ disciples failing to understand what Jesus was teaching about himself and his kingdom. Consider the story found in Matthew 11 of John the Baptist being thrown in prison. John had been the forerunner for Jesus and was passionately pointing people to him, but when he finds himself in prison he begins to grow confused. Think about it: if Jesus was this long expected powerful and mighty messiah who will finally establish God’s kingdom, why is John the Baptist now in prison? John asks, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” To which Jesus responds, “the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them” (11:5).
In other words, Jesus is explaining that these are the signs of his kingdom, not the violent overthrow of the Roman government that put John in prison. Immediately after this we see Jesus speaking to the crowds concerning John: “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force” (11:12). What Jesus is explaining here is that, in his kingdom, his followers ought to expect persecution and ought not to respond to it as the violent do (Fight, 124).
Another great example of Jesus’ disciples failing to understand the meaning of Jesus’ teaching concerning God’s Kingdom can be found in Mark 8:27-38. In this passage, Jesus directly asks Peter, “Who do you say that I am?” To which Peter correctly responds, “You are the messiah”. Then in verse 30 we encounter something strange–Jesus responds to Peter’s correct declaration by charging his disciples to tell no one about this.
When reading through the Gospels and encountering verses like this (there are several other times when Jesus tells others not to speak about him being the messiah), many of us wonder why Jesus would keep this a secret. Doesn’t he want others to know that he’s the messiah? The answer is yes–Jesus does want others to know he is the messiah–but we must remember that the Israelites were looking for a messiah who would be a violent revolutionary, not a peaceable servant. Jesus didn’t want to stir up crowds who would inevitably get the wrong idea and attempt to overthrow Roman government and make him king. Instead, Jesus’ aim was to provide for his followers a new image of messiahship.
This is why, after this encounter with Peter, we see Jesus immediately begin explaining to his disciples that he “must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again” (8:31). Then we see that Peter began to rebuke Jesus. Why? Because in Peter’s mind, messiahs don’t suffer and get killed. Messiahs conquer with force and violence. But not Jesus. This is why Jesus responds by rebuking Peter and correcting him by saying, “You are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man” (8:33). In other words, Peter has bought into a “kingdom of this world” mentality and has not yet learned that Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world (Fight, 125-126).
Jesus takes it a step further by then explaining to his disciples that he won’t be the only one to suffer. Immediately after this interaction, Jesus turns his attention to the crowd around them and says to them, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it” (8:34-45). According to Jesus, all those who would believe that he is the messiah and follow him must be willing to suffer just as he suffers. All who would follow after Jesus must recognize that this will entail picking up their own crosses and suffering. Why? Because, according to Jesus, God’s Kingdom is not of this world–it’s a kingdom with citizens who would rather suffer than kill and who would rather follow a crucified and resurrected messiah than a violent revolutionary.
There are other passages that portray Jesus correcting misconceptions about his messiahship, but for the sake of brevity, I’ll move on. The point is simply that time and time again Jesus found it necessary to correct false ideas about Israel’s messiah and to offer instead an alternative picture of God’s Kingdom and God’s chosen messiah–a picture that shows the better reality of God’s peace.
There’s so much that could be said about how Jesus’ crucifixion paints for us a picture of nonviolence. All the moments leading up to his death on the cross illustrate this. For example, after one of Jesus’ disciples decides to chop off the ear of one of the servants of the high priest in an attempt to protect Jesus from being arrested, Jesus responds by rebuking him, saying: “Put your sword back into its place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword” (Matthew 26:52 ESV). According to the church father Tertullian (160-220 AD), when Jesus disarmed this disciple of his sword (traditionally understood to be Peter), Jesus disarmed all Christians. How? By showing us that we cannot seek to advance or protect God’s Kingdom through violence.
When Jesus was accused of treason, his accusers spit in his face, struck him, and slapped him (Matthew 26:67), but he didn’t retaliate or seek to protect himself. Then the Roman soldiers began beating him with a stick, mocking him, and stripping him of his clothes (27:30), but he still didn’t fight back. He could’ve called down a legion of angels to protect him, but he refused (26:53). And then while he was on the cross, instead of condemning those crucifying him or promising a future judgment for them, Jesus prays for them, saying: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34).
Now at this point, some readers might be thinking, Yes, Jesus didn’t fight back or seek to protect himself, but this is because he had to die on the cross to atone for the sins of the world. Absolutely… But there’s more to Jesus’ death than this. Jesus’ death on the cross, as Sprinkle explains, provides a pattern for the life of a disciple (Fight, 145). Peter later understood this: “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” (1 Peter 2:21).
Jesus didn’t have to die on the cross. He could’ve fought back and wiped out those who sought to kill him with the snap of his fingers. Instead, Jesus chose to die to (1) make atonement for the sins of the world and (2) leave us the most memorable example of what it looks like to love our enemies and live as his disciples in a violent world.
What does the resurrection have to do with nonviolence? Think about it: No other person in the history of the world has been resurrected from the dead (Lazarus and others Jesus brought back from the dead weren’t resurrected, they were resuscitated. If they were resurrected, they would’ve been unable to die again. For one to be resurrected like Jesus means that he or she will never die again. See Romans 6:9). This must mean that God, the only One who has power over the grave, approved of everything Jesus said and did. God’s act of raising Jesus (who is God in the flesh) from the dead, was an act of vindication. As Richard Hays explains, “The resurrection serves as God’s decisive vindication of Jesus’ authority to teach and guide the community” (Hays, MVNT, 322).
Pastor and writer Brian Zahnd agrees:
The resurrection is not only God’s vindication of his Son; it is the vindication of all Jesus taught. Easter Sunday is nothing less than the triumph of the peaceable kingdom of Christ. Easter changes everything. Easter is the hope of the world, the dawn of a new age, the rising of the New Jerusalem on the horizon of humanity’s burned-out landscape. Easter is God saying once again, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased. Listen to him!”Zahnd, AFTM, Kindle locations 243-246.
As I attempted to show in the previous blog post, Jesus taught his followers to be nonviolent. The fact that Jesus was raised from the dead demonstrates that God approved of everything Jesus taught, including his teachings on violence and peace.
There’s so much more that could be said about how the Gospels point us toward the position of Christian nonviolence. But this is merely a blog post, and this will have to do for now. Next time, I will widen our scope to analyze what the rest of the New Testament teaches concerning nonviolence. As always, I hope you enjoyed these thoughts. God bless.