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 [verb 1] or [verb 2], and [verb 3] with your wages.”
Let’s begin with the easiest of the verbs to translate. The third verb used is pronounced arkeo. This exact form of the verb is used eight times in the New Testament, and all agree that it carries the meaning of being “content” and “satisfied” in the sense of considering one’s allotment in life to be “enough” and “sufficient”. Thus, the last portion of John’s answer is an instruction for the soldiers to be content with their wages. This portion of John’s answer is quite radical in and of itself, for a common practice among Roman soldiers at that time was to use their position of power and strength to obtain through force, threats, or intimidation the possessions and money of the defenseless. Extortion by soldiers was commonplace. Thus, John the Baptist instructs these men to have no part in such a corrupt practice.
Turning now to the first Greek verb which is pronounced diaseio. Clearly defining this word is difficult since this occurrence in Luke 3:14 is the only time we find it being used in the New Testament. There is one additional use of this verb in the Greek version of the Old Testament. From those two biblical occurrences as well as non-biblical sources from that time period, we know that this verb carries the following meaning(s): to shake violently or intimidate by force[i], to extort money from a person[ii], to do violence to another, to cause to tremble, or to terrify.[iii]
At the heart of this verb’s meaning is the imagery of causing someone to shake or tremble with fear due to violence or violent threats. Some English translations have chosen to connect the imagery of this verb with the final portion of John the Baptist’s instruction to these soldiers regarding contentment with one’s wage. Thus, some translations render this Greek verb to be referring to extortion. As we have already seen, extortion was certainly a known practice amongst Roman soldiers. Yet, there are numerous other scenarios in which a Roman soldier would inflict violence on or violently threaten a Jew. Narrowing John the Baptist’s answer as merely a prohibition against the practice of extortion misses the full extent of his instruction. This Greek verb is instructing these soldiers to no longer inflict violence on people or even use the threat of violence to intimidate people, whether that be for the purposes of extorting money from them or otherwise.
Finally, the second Greek verb in Luke 3:14 is pronounced sykophanteo. This verb is used twice in the New Testament and an additional seven times in the Greek Old Testament. Most resources translate this verb as: to make false charges, accuse fraudulently, misrepresent, harass, or oppress through cheating or extortion.
Now what is crucial to recognize in understanding this word is that it is derived from the root word syke, which means fig tree. As the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament points out, in the Hebrew mind the “proverbial sign of peace and security is that everyone may sit under or eat of his vine or his fig-tree” (e.g. 2 Kings 18:31, Micah 4:4, and Zechariah 3:10). Thus, when the Greek verb sykophanteo speaks of cheating or extorting someone, it conjures up the imagery of taking away that person’s metaphorical fig tree. In other words, sykophanteo means to defraud someone of the things that make for his or her peace and security.
Thus, based on our study of the three Greek verbs used in Luke 3:14, when these soldiers asked what they must do to bear fruit worthy of repentance, John the Baptist’s answer can best be understood as meaning the following three intertwined instructions:
- Do not inflict violence on anyone. Do not even intimidate others with the threat of violence.
- Do not make false charges against people in order to defraud them of the things that make for their peace and safety.
- Instead of using your power and authority to extort others of their money and possessions, learn to be content with your wages. View your allotment as enough.
Is The Nature Of Your Occupation Compatible With Jesus’ Way of Life?
Did John the Baptist inform these soldiers that resigning from the military was a required outcome of true repentance? No. Or more accurately, not exactly. It is true that John did not instruct these soldiers to leave their occupation. However, he did call them to commit to a way of life that would almost certainly prove to be incompatible with their military duties. Luke’s gospel account does not describe the soldiers’ reaction to John the Baptist’s answer. Still, I picture these soldiers walking away distraught as the ramifications of his reply sunk in. They likely confessed to each other, “We can learn to be content with our rations, but how can we be soldiers and not use violence? How can we serve in the Roman army and not participate in stripping our enemies of their peace and safety? If we obey this Baptizer, it’s only a matter of time before we’ll be dishonorably discharged or thrown in jail!”
Contemporary Christian author Brian Walsh once wrote, “A Christian can hold any job. But if they act as Christians, they will simply need to be ready to be fired within a few weeks.” This appears to be the approach John the Baptist took in deciding how to answer the repentant soldiers. He could have instructed them to leave the military. However, instead of simply devising a legalistic list of which occupations are incompatible with the Christian life, John chose to list three ethical standards that serve as a framework for evaluating the compatibility of every occupation. If an occupation requires you to inflict violence, take away people’s peace and safety, or greedily seek after more and more wealth, then it is not compatible with the way of Christ.
In many ways I’d prefer to employ John the Baptist’s tactic of simply voicing various ethical standards and virtues that Christians can then use to determine on their own if the nature of an occupation is compatible. Simply give the criteria, and let each person reach their own conclusions. Yet, if I am honest with myself, despite my tendency to be repulsed by legalism, I do in fact see the wisdom in developing a list of those occupations whose very nature is blatantly antithetical to the love of Christ. This is in fact what the early Church did.
The Early Church Prohibited Christians From Taking On Certain Occupations:
Many of our Church Fathers prohibited Christians from taking on specific occupations. These early Christian leaders considered certain occupations to be irreparably incompatible with the kind of life Jesus called His Church to follow. They viewed the nature of these jobs to be antithetical to the nature of Christ. For example, Tertullian the passionate apologist, wrote in 197AD, “But now inquiry is being made concerning these issues. First, can any believer enlist in the military? Second, can any soldier, even those of the rank and file or lesser grades who neither engage in pagan sacrifices nor capital punishment, be admitted into the church? No on both counts.” Similarly, a few decades later Origen, who was arguably the most brilliant mind of the Church’s first few centuries, declared, “You cannot demand military service of Christians any more than you can of priests. We do not go forth as soldiers with the Emperor even if he demands this.” Perhaps the most articulate statement of this kind came from Hippolytus of Rome in 218 AD. He wrote:
“The professions and trades of those who are going to be accepted into the community must be examined. The nature and type of each must be established. Brothel, sculptors of idols, charioteer, athlete, gladiator…give it up or be rejected. A military constable must be forbidden to kill, neither may he swear; if he is not willing to follow these instructions, he must be rejected. A proconsul or magistrate who wears the purple and governs by the sword shall give it up or be rejected. Anyone taking or already baptized who wants to become a soldier shall be sent away, for he has despised God.”
As we can tell from these three samples, many early Christian teachers and leaders deemed the nature of some jobs as going directly against the radical spirit of Christ’s love. Furthermore, it was not just individual Christian leaders speaking out against these professions. There are multiple ancient Church Orders that decry Christian participation in the military. These Church Orders served as authoritative prescriptions on issues of morality and belief that all of the churches under that authority agreed to affirm. They carried much the same function as doctrinal statements do today for denominations. They served as documents which specified the morals and beliefs of a unified body of churches.
In the 5th Century AD, one such Church Order, known as the Testament of Our Lord, prescribed the following standard for the churches it oversaw:
“If anyone be a soldier or in authority, let him be taught not to oppress or to kill or to rob, or to be angry or to rage and afflict anyone. But let those rations suffice him which are given to him. But if they wish to be baptized in the Lord, let them cease from military service or from the [post of] authority, and if not let them not be received. Let a catechumen or a believer of the people, if he desire to be a soldier, either cease from his intention, or if not let him be rejected. For he hath despised God by his thought, and leaving the things of the Spirit, he hath perfected himself in the flesh and hath treated the faith with contempt.”
It is fascinating that this Church Order expounds the exact same teaching as what I have just concluded to be John the Baptist’s answer to the repentant soldiers. One is left wondering if the writers of the Testament of Our Lord specifically looked to John the Baptist’s answer as a framework for theirs. Both John and this ancient Church Order call for those already in the military “not to oppress or to kill” (point #1 listed above), nor to wrongfully take from others through robbery (point #2), and to be content with their rations (point #3). This adds credibility to the conclusion we reached from our study of the three Greek verbs in Luke 3:14; namely, that the Baptizer was not just instructing the repentant soldiers to no long extort money. In fact, my claim is that any English version of Luke 3:14 that does not touch upon our three aforementioned points is too restrictive in its translation. Those translations have not captured the full extent of the Baptizer’s answer.
Concluding Thoughts: In the end, we’ve come to see that, though John the Baptist did not explicitly order these soldiers to leave the military, he did instruct them to live by three ethical standards that would inevitably clash with the nature of their occupation. We have also discovered that our Church Fathers did in fact consider serving in the military to be off limits for Christians. They saw the duties required of soldiers to be irreparably incompatible with Jesus’ radical love.
The challenge for each of us is to determine what to do with these insights, especially if you agree with the conclusions I have reached in this reflection. If you’re like me, you have numerous Christian friends and family who serve in the military. Certainly there are soldiers who are wonderful examples of selfless bravery and courage. Their desire to work for peace in the world is to be commended, even if we believe their approach to peacemaking is misguided.
As we refuse to demonize those Christians who serve in the military (as the post about the Roman Centurion’s Great Faith reminds us), I believe we must also follow John the Baptist’s example, even though it will be unpopular. In other words, we must remind our soldier friends that Jesus calls His followers (1) to do no violence, (2) to never strip people of the things that make for their peace and security, and (3) to not participate in greedy systems that extort others. Then, if our Christians friends in the military conclude that their current occupation is not compatible with the way of Jesus, we must graciously welcome them into a supportive Christian community that provides for their needs as they deal with the ramifications of desertion and transition to a compatible occupation. None of this is easy. Indeed, following Jesus is costly.
Time For Feedback: Did you agree with the conclusions I drew from John’s reply to the repentant soldiers? Did you find this reflection helpful in your effort to understand and apply Jesus’ approach to peacemaking? How could I improve this post? Any additional comments?
[i] NASB Hebrew-Aramaic & Greek Dictionaries.
[ii] An Intermediate Greek English Lexicon
[iii] Strong’s Concise Dictionary of the Words in the Greek Testament and The Hebrew Bible