Wednesday, 19 June 2013

Loving Your Enemy: Part 6: What does the New Testament teach?

An ironic depiction of a peace dove in the West Bank. 

In Part 4 and Part 5 we discussed Jesus' teaching on the Sermon on the Mount and the Gospel's witness to peace-theology. We observed that there is a consistency among the four Gospels on the vision of Jesus as a practitioner and teacher of enemy love. The question we will wrestle with in this blog post is: What does the New Testament teach on peace-theology? Or in other words:

Do the other texts in the New Testament cannon reinforce Jesus' teaching on nonviolence or do they provide other options that might allow or require Christians to take up the sword?

"When the question is posed this way, the immediate result, as Karl Barth observed, is to underscore how impressively univocal the New Testament writers are on this point... From Matthew to Revelation we find a consistent witness against violence and a calling to follow the example of Jesus in accepting suffering rather than inflicting it."  

- Dr. Richard Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament

Let's attempt to examine this claim. We will not attempt an exhaustive read of the peace theology of the New Testament but try to highlight the consistent witness to peace theology. Here is a brief survey:

(We will examine possible biblical objections to peace theology in the upcoming posts)  

Acts of the Apostles

Luke preserves the death of Jesus as a murder of an innocent victim. Peter on the Day of Pentecost addresses the crowd saying, "And you, with the help of wicked men, put Jesus to death by nailing him to the cross". (2.23) His listeners are shocked that God does not respond with retribution but with the words of forgiveness and reconciliation to all. 

Luke portrays the emergent movement whose activity consist of preaching, healing ,worship and sharing. Those who carry the message of the Kingdom to various outposts of the Roman world do not claim territory through military operations; rather they proclaim the Gospel and often find themselves the targets of violence. (5.17-42) 

The Christian response to violence is modeled by Stephen the Martyr, who imitates the example of Jesus in his death by praying for the forgiveness of his enemy. (7.60) "Stephen’s last words are surprisingly close to two of the last words of Jesus just before he died. He asks God to receive his spirit (7:59; cf. Luke 23:46) and not to “hold this sin against” his killers (Acts 7:60; cf. Luke 23:34). Only Luke mentions the two parallel statements of Christ. Presumably he wants his readers to note the similarity and entered into the fellowship of sharing in Christ’s sufferings."[1]

The response of the early church to violence is too trust and obey God for vindication. Never is there any indication in the book of Luke-Acts that the church should stand and fight those who persecute her. Immediately after the murder of Stephen, the church does not 'stand and fight', but Luke tells us that, "All except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria."(8.1) 

"Suffering is one of the major sub-themes of the book of Acts. It is reasonable, therefore, to conclude that Luke is describing the suffering of Stephen and the church and their response to it in order that his readers might glean lessons on how Christians should face suffering. Stephen received strength to face his painful ordeal triumphantly. On many other occasions in Acts when God’s servants suffered for the gospel, God revealed himself in some recognizable way that gave them the courage to go on (4:31; 18:9; 23:11; 27:23–24). We can conclude that God, knowing how much we can endure, gives us his strength in our times of need, which boosts our spirits and spurs us on to obedience, even to obedience leading to death. In a similar way God fulfilled this promise in the life of Paul when no relief from suffering came to him: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9). 

Christ is a suffering Savior, and if we are to be truly one with him, we too must suffer. There is a depth of union with Christ that comes to us only through suffering. But not only do we share in his sufferings, he shares in our sufferings. The exalted Christ, sharing in the glory of God, is not deaf to our cries of pain as we suffer; he himself suffers with us when we suffer. Paul came to understand this on the road to Damascus when he heard Jesus say, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” (Acts 9:4). Saul had been hitting the church, but Christ had been feeling the pain!" [2]


In the letters of Paul; the death of Christ is interpreted as God’s peace initiative.
  • “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him! For if, while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life!” (Romans 5:8-10)

"Paul refers to “peace with God,” the objective position we find ourselves in because God has ceased to be hostile toward us and has reconciled us to himself . Paul often uses peace in this sense (see esp. Eph. 2:14, 15, 17; also Rom. 2:10; 8:6; 14:17)."[3] How does God treat enemies? Rather than killing them, Paul tells us that God gives us his Son to die for them. Jesus comes with the message of forgiveness and reconciliation, to bring us back to God. Jesus, fulfilling his own Beatitudes, is the blessed peacemaker who 'persecuted for righteousness sake'. "For he (Jesus) himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility." (Ephesians 2:14) 

The imitation of Christ in his self-emptying service for the sake of others is the central ethical motif in Paul. (Phil 2:1-13) "Let the same mind be in you that [was] in Christ Jesus': more literally, 'be thus minded in/ among yourselves as also in Christ Jesus'. Paul points to Jesus, as known on earth, as the example for Christians in their relationships."[4] Christ followers are to imitate the kenosis of Jesus, "Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!"(Phil 2:6-8) 

Paul, in Romans 12, commands the church to love and bless their enemies; overcome evil with good. This bears a striking resemblance to the Sermon on the Mount:

"Paul shows more dependence on Jesus’ teaching in this part of Romans than he does anywhere else in his letters. The way he weaves references to that teaching into his own exhortations without specifically citing Jesus is typical of the way the early Christians absorbed Jesus’ words into their own ethical tradition. Like Jesus, Paul calls on us to turn the other cheek, displaying a love for others that goes far beyond the normal boundaries of human love....
"Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” Though redeemed and citizens of heaven, we believers still live in a world soaked in evil. We must battle constantly against the tendency to conform our behaviour to this world . But more than the purely negative quality of resistance to evil is needed. God calls us to be active in using the grace of the gospel and the power of the Spirit to win victories over the evil of this world."[5]

Paul’s occasional use of military imagery (2 Cor 10:3-6;

Phil 1:27-30) actually have the opposite effect the warfare imagery it’s drafted into the service of the gospel rather than the reverse. Paul appropriates battle imagery as the way of describing the apocalyptic context in which the community live. The actual fighting is done through the proclamation of the Gospel and the obedient yielding of one’s life. Rightly understood these metaphors witness powerfully against violence as an expression of obedience to God in Christ. e.g. "For our battle is not against flesh and blood".

The writer of the book of Hebrews reminds his/her readers that they have been through such persecution in the past.

  • "You endured in a great conflict full of suffering. Sometimes you were publicly exposed to insult and persecution; at other times you stood side by side with those who were so treated. You suffered along with those in prison and joyfully accepted the confiscation of your property, because you knew that you yourselves had better and lasting possessions. So do not throw away your confidence; it will be richly rewarded." (Hebrews 10:32b-34)

Notice that the plunder of possessions is to be excepted with joy (meta chara) rather than resisted by force. Here we find a substantiative parallel to Matthew 5:40.


Peter is concerned with the community’s response to trials and suffering. (1 Peter 1:6-7, 3:13, 4:12-19, 5:8-10) Such afflictions are interpreted in a manner reminiscent of Paul, as ‘sharing Christ’s suffering’(1 Peter 4:13)

The author 1 Peter holds up the suffering of Christ as a paradigm for Christian faithfulness.
  • “To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps....When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly.” (1 Peter 2:21;23) 
James declares anger as ‘not producing the righteousness of God’. (1.20) 

James believes that wisdom that is from heaven is 'peace-loving'. (3.17) 

According to James; those that sow in peace will reap a harvest of righteousness. James is connecting the activity of peacemaking to the establishment of righteousness on the earth. (3.18) 

James 4:1-3: ‘Wars and fightings’ are attributed to the ‘cravings’ that are at war within an individual. James never entertains the notion that their might be circumstances in which fighting and killing are necessary for some good purpose.

James encourages patience in the midst of suffering. (5.7-12) There is no call for 'godly retaliation' from the brother of Jesus. 


Revelation is often misread as a warrant for warlike attitude among Christians. This is to read the Revelation out of context. The entire content of the book is presented as a visionary revelation granted to someone named John who identifies himself as “your brother who shares with you in Jesus the persecution; and the Kingdom patient endurance. (1:9)

Revelation 5 becomes a controlling text for the hermeneutic of the book of the Revelation.Here we see the Lion who has become the slaughtered Lamb. (5.6) The shock of this reveal discloses the central mystery of the apocalypse: God overcomes the world not through a show of force but through the suffering and death of Jesus.

In the book of Revelation, Christ’s Lordship stands as a flat antithesis to Caesars. (11:15)

The Saints conquer the power of evil through the ‘blood of the lamb and by the word of their testimony’ (Rev 12:11); not through recourse to violence.

In the climactic battle scene in Revelation 19 Jesus appears as the conquering rider on a white horse. It is significant that
the sword Jesus uses isn’t held in his hand, as the conquering Caesars might be portrayed. It rather comes out of his mouth signifying that Jesus defeats enemies simply by speaking the truth. The 'warrior Jesus' is clothed with a blood soaked robe before the battle even begins (vs 13). The blood is clearly not that of his enemies, whom he has yet to fight. Rather, the symbolism suggests Jesus goes to battle and ultimately reigns victorious by shedding his own blood.

"The fact that the sword Jesus bears in Revelation comes from his mouth indicates that John of Patmos is referring to the spoken word of God. It was sheer divine will that ended primordial chaos and created the cosmos through God’s spoken word at the beginning of time (Genesis 1). Now the sheer will of God, through Jesus the Word, will end the darkness of malevolent empire and bring in the new heaven and new earth."[6]

If we interpret Revelation according to its genre and in its original historical context, and if we pay close attention to the ingenious way John uses traditional symbolism, it becomes clear that John is taking traditional Apocalyptic violent imagery and turning it on its head.  Yes there is an aggressive war, and yes there is bloodshed. But its a war in which the Lamb and his followers are victorious because they fight the devil and Babylon (representing all  governmental systems) by faithfully laying down their lives for the sake of truth (”the blood of the lamb and the word of their testimony”). 

Thanks for reading this post! We will be dealing with biblical objections and problematic sections in the upcoming: "But what about?" series. 

Be sure to check out Part 1Part 2 and Part 3Part 4, and Part 5

Here is Part 7. 

Works Cited

1. Fernando, Ajith NIV Application Commentary on Acts (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010) 655 (e-version)  
2. Ibid.
3. Moo, Douglas. NIV Application Commentary on Romans (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009) 418 e-version 
4. Barton, John. The Oxford Bible Commentary
5. Moo, Douglas. NIV Application Commentary on Romans (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009) 1015 e-version
6. York, Tripp ed. A Faith Not Worth Fighting For: What about Warrior Jesus in Revelation 19? 

1 comment: