Jesus and his apostles teach us to love our enemies, joyfully endure persecution, and do everything within our power to live at peace with everyone. There is very little, if anything, in the New Testament that would justify Christians using violence for any reason. However, the pages of the Old Testament are full of war, violence, and bloodshed. Not only do God’s people kill, but they are sometimes obeying God’s commands when they do so. At one point, I tried to strike a balance between the Old Testament’s teachings about violence and the New Testament’s, but I no longer think that’s the right way to read the Bible.
Applying the Old Testament
Christians sometimes have an inconsistent relationship with the Old Testament. We seem to quote from it when it suits us and dismiss it when it doesn’t. Most of us do not believe we must circumcise our male babies, keep the Sabbath, or travel to Jerusalem annually to celebrate feasts and festivals. We eat pork, wear clothing made of mixed fabrics, and disregard countless other explicit teachings of the Law. And if we read an example of someone in the Old Testament doing something we don’t believe a Christian should do, we simply say, “Well, that was the Old Testament.”
There is, of course, an inherent challenge when it comes to reading and applying the Hebrew Scriptures today. On the one hand, Paul was talking about the books we call the Old Testament when he said:
“All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.”2 Timothy 3:16-17
And when he said:
“For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.”Romans 15:4
On the other hand, the Old Testament is made up of instructions to, and examples of, those who lived under the Law of Moses. And Jesus has fulfilled the Law. The Jerusalem council concluded Gentiles did not need to be circumcised or be bound to most of the teachings of the Law (Acts 15:22-35). The Hebrew writer argued that Jesus is the new and better sacrifice, as well as the new and better High Priest. And Paul argued that we are no longer under the Law (Galatians 5:18).
There is no doubt, Christians should continue to read and embrace the entire Old Testament. Every single word of it. But the way we follow and live it out today is not by pretending everything applies to us the same way it did to its original audience. Here is the way Paul taught Christians to fulfill the Law:
- Put your faith in Christ (Galatians 3:23-29)
- Love your neighbor as yourself (Galatians 5:14)
- Walk by the Spirit and not the flesh (Galatians 5:18-23)
Only when we are doing these three things can we claim we are truly following the Old Testament teachings as they apply to Christians today.
Though many of us are not overly familiar with the Old Testament prophets, we tend to have an affinity for the “Messianic prophecies.” We love the passages written hundreds of years before Jesus that give credibility to his Messianic claims. However, we often fail to recognize that one of the key themes of the Messianic prophecies was peace (e.g. Isaiah 11).
The prophets said the Messiah would bring peace to the world by teaching people—both Jews and Gentiles—to obey God’s will. It’s hard not to think that both Isaiah and Micah are speaking of the Messiah’s reign when they prophesy, “Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore” (Isaiah 2:4; Micah 4:3).
So, even though God sometimes sanctioned violence and warfare prior to the Messiah’s coming, the prophets seemed to say that would change when the Messiah began his reign. God’s people of every nation would no longer go to war. They would learn to be people of peace.
So, the question is, do we believe Jesus is the Messiah and we are presently living in the age of the Messiah’s reign? If we do, then perhaps the best way to follow the Old Testament’s teaching on violence is to “beat [our] swords into plowshares” (Isaiah 2:4).
Jesus and the Apostles
One doesn’t need to look far within the teachings of Jesus and the apostles to figure out how Jesus expects his followers to treat their enemies:
- “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44)
- “Do good to those who hate you” (Luke 6:27)
- “Bless those who persecute you” (Romans 12:14)
- “If your enemy is hungry, feed him” (Romans 12:20)
- “Show perfect courtesy toward all people” (Titus 3:2)
- “Honor everyone” (1 Peter 2:17)
- “Do not repay evil for evil” (1 Peter 3:9)
All of these teachings imply, of course, that the Messiah’s people would not experience peace the way they may have expected. Just because Jesus’ followers learned to be peacemakers, does not mean their enemies would follow suit (Matthew 10:34). Jesus told his followers to expect hatred, rejection, persecution, and execution. But Jesus instructed his followers, “Don’t fight back against someone who wants to do harm to you” (Matthew 5:39, ERV).
These are not easy teachings. It would be one thing to embrace Jesus’ way of life if we had no enemies. But to embrace his teaching when there are evil people who want to harm us takes real faith. Of course, faith is what discipleship is all about.
Believing God will raise us from the dead frees us to turn the other cheek, go the extra mile, and love our enemies. But if we continue to try to preserve our mortal lives through violence, are we really trusting Jesus? Listen to Jesus’ stark warning, “Whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 10:38-39).
Yes, in the Old Testament, the people of God often engaged in violence. At times, God even commanded them to do so. But something very important has happened since then: God’s Son has been enthroned as King. Jesus becoming King changes everything. Here are some of the things I believe:
- the prophets’ vision is fulfilled by Jesus
- we are living under the Messiah’s reign
- Jesus has given us eternal life and will raise us from the dead
- loving our enemies precludes killing them
- vegnance belongs to God and not us
Because of these truths, I believe we must always follow the teachings and the example of Jesus. I will conclude with the way Peter commended the example of Jesus, “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 2:23).
I love you and God loves you,
P.S. I anticipate some will have questions about these two New Testament passages: