Last week we looked at Jesus’ encounter with the Roman centurion and concluded that: (1) you can commend someone’s faith without necessarily commending their occupation, and (2) contrary to popular interpretations, the central lessons to be gleaned from this passage are two foundational principles of Jesus’ approach to peacemaking. You can read that post here. Today, I want to turn our attention to John the Baptist’s reply to the enquiry of some repentant soldiers.
It probably comes as no surprise that these two passages—Jesus’ encounter with the Roman centurion and John the Baptist’s reply to these soldiers—are frequently used to dismiss a pacifist reading of the Gospels. Yet, just as we discovered in the passage on the centurion’s great faith, it is my belief that a faithful study of this passage actually supports a pacifist reading of the Gospels AND reveals further insights into Jesus’ nonviolent approach to peacemaking.
First, let’s familiarize ourselves with the scene in which these soldiers enquire of John the Baptist. Based on the NIV translation, Luke 3:10-14 reads:
John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”
The Crux Of the Problem:
For our purposes today, the crux of the problem is this: If Jesus truly calls His followers to not inflict violence on others, then why did John the Baptist not tell these soldiers to leave the military? After all, you couldn’t ask for a more perfect scenario in which to do so, if that truly was your conviction. Here was a group of soldiers coming before John in a contrite posture…genuinely wanting to know how they might repent. If John honestly believed violence was incompatible with the way of the coming Messiah, then surely he would have vocalized this to these soldiers!
Was John the Baptist’s Teaching The Same As Jesus’ Teaching?:
To begin with, let’s keep in mind that John the Baptist’s encounter with these soldiers occurs prior to the start of Jesus’ earthly ministry. At that point in time, nobody (including John the Baptist) could fully grasp what the heart and character of the coming Messiah would be like (see John 14:9). Luke stresses this very point at the start of his gospel account. Luke weaves into his opening narrative snapshots from four people (Mary, Zechariah, John the Baptist, and Simeon) regarding what they expected the coming Messiah to be like. These brief pictures of the long-awaited Messiah are filled with predictions of Him toppling rulers, delivering His people from their enemies, and helping Israel. Only Simeon makes any mention of the Messiah’s mission having good ramifications for all people, not just Israel. After these snapshots of four people’s expectations, we read in Luke 4 that Jesus begins His earthly ministry by setting the record straight. He dispels many of the misconceptions about His messianic mission and in so doing, utterly shocks all who were listening (to the point that they try to throw Him off a cliff). This was not the kind of Messiah most people were expecting.
Now, just prior to Jesus beginning His earthly ministry, He went to be baptized by John. In that account, we read that John was convinced that Jesus was in fact the long-awaited Messiah. Yet, once Jesus actually started His earthly ministry, we discover that John the Baptist was beginning to have serious doubts. Events were not unfolding the way John had expected. Stuck in jail, he begins to question Jesus’ validity as God’s chosen Messiah. And so we read in Luke 7:19, “John, calling two of his disciples to him, sent them to Jesus, saying, ‘Are you the Coming One, or do we look for another?’”
Our suspicions are now confirmed. John the Baptist, along with everyone else, did not and could not fully grasp the essential nature of the prophesied Jewish Messiah. This should come as no surprise. After all, Jesus knew that a significant part of His mission on earth was to dispel the many misconceptions about God by revealing His true nature. Thus, it would be wrong for us to conclude that if John the Baptist did not instruct these soldiers to leave the military, then Jesus must also consider it acceptable for His followers to serve in the military. That may or may not be Jesus’ stance, but we ought to not equate John’s teaching with Jesus’.
All that said, regarding John the Baptist’s answer to these repentant soldiers, this will actually turn out to be a mute point. For, we will soon discover that John’s reply in Luke 3:14 is in fact very much in line with the teachings of Jesus. So let’s continue addressing this legitimate critique of a pacifist reading of Luke 3:14 by examining the content of John’s answer.
What Exactly Was John’s Answer?:
According to the NIV translation, John’s answer to these soldiers in Luke 3:14 is, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.” However, if you look up this verse in multiple English translations you quickly discover significant variation in how they translate John’s response. For example:
- “Do not intimidate anyone or accuse falsely, and be content with your wages” (NKJV).
- “Don’t force people to pay money to make you leave them alone. Be satisfied with your pay” (CEV)
- “Don’t take money from anyone by force or false accusation; be satisfied with your wages” (HCSB)
- “Do violence to no one, nor accuse falsely, and be content with your wages” (YLT).
- “Do violence to no man, neither accuse any falsely; and be content with your wages” (KJV)
These translations definitely vary the meaning of John the Baptist’s reply: from the NIV version which makes no mention of refraining from violence, to the KJV and YLT versions which explicitly quote the Baptizer as prohibiting the use of violence.
Let me explain why there is such great variation. If I were to translate the Greek of Luke 3:14 in a word-for-word literal translation it would begin like this:
And he said to them, “Do no one…”
What follows immediately after this are three consecutive Greek verbs that are only separated by the Greek forms of “or” or “and”. Thus, the full verse looks like this:
And he said to them, “Do no one