Violence In The Old Testament is an ongoing series of reflections designed to help Christians make sense of Jesus’ teaching on peace and enemy love when juxtaposed with the images of an often violent and vengeful God found throughout the Old Testament. After all, violent Old Testament passages, such as those attributing genocidal acts to God, ought to be problematic not just for pacifists, but for every moral, Bible-believing Christian.
Brief Recap Of The Series Thus Far & The Direction It Is Going: Ultimately, this series is moving towards elaborating on the way in which I have come to reconcile the conflicting sets of teaching contained in the Old and New Testaments on the permissibility of violence and treatment of enemies. However, before we can get there, at this point in the series, we are addressing three preliminary questions. They are:
- Is there really a contradiction between the Old and New Testament teaching on the permissibility of violence and treatment of enemies?
- What ethical stance should Christians embrace while they are still grappling with these apparently incompatible teachings?
- What are the primary ways that Christians throughout history (including today) have made sense of these seemingly incompatible teachings?
Last week, I ventured an answer to the first question, which you can read here. Next week, I will present a handful of ways Christians have historically attempted to reconcile these conflicting teachings. In that post, I’ll summarize each remedy and then list its strengths and weaknesses.
Today’s Post: In today’s post, I will address arguably the most important question in this entire series: What or whose teaching should we follow during those times in which we are confused by seemingly conflicting sets of biblical instruction? In other words, when the Bible seems to propound conflicting ethical stances, what ethic do we uphold? Do we solely follow Jesus’ teaching or the Old Testament’s ethic, or do we compromise both by devising a middle-of-the-road stance?
More important than knowing how I or other Christians have come to make sense of the violence-condoning portions of Scripture, is for you to know what moral teaching to follow while in the midst of being confused by conflicting biblical ethics. Let’s face it. There’s a good chance that you may be dissatisfied or even disagree with the way in which I and others have come to reconcile these two sets of teaching on violence. It’s equally probable that in this life, you may never find a satisfactory solution to this predicament. Personally, I won’t be concerned by either outcome, so long as you have learned what criteria to use in determining your ethical stance during those seasons of confusion.
The Jesus-Centered Principle: My claim for you to consider is that Jesus is intended to be the lens through which we read, interpret, and apply all of Scripture because: (1) He is the clearest picture we have of what God is like, (2) in Jesus, all the fullness of God lives in bodily form, and (3) Jesus embodied and modeled all that God intends humanity to be.
What I am not saying is that every biblical author had Jesus in mind as they penned their inspired texts. Nor am I claiming that every portion of Scripture points to Jesus. What I am asserting is this: Any portrayal of God and any call to a particular way of life that is espoused by Scripture must be filtered through the way of Jesus and His revelation of the triune God’s essential character, values and priorities. This is what I refer to as the Jesus-Centered Principle.
Christopher Peppler states it this way, “No interpretation of any passage in the Bible that undercuts the revelations of the divine mind inculcated by Jesus can be accepted as valid. What He says and does is what God says and does.” Similarly, Dane Ortlund writes that “mature Christian interaction with the Bible necessarily reads and interprets it through a Christological lens in which the incarnate Christ is seen to be the ultimate interpretive key to accessing the full meaning(s) of the biblical text.” Ortlund goes on to describe Jesus as “the integrative North Star to Christian doctrine and practice.”
Answer #1: Why should we as Christians interpret the entire Bible through Jesus’ life and teachings? The answer is threefold. First of all, we do so because—as Paul wrote to the church in Colossae—Jesus is “the clearest image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15). In other words, Jesus provides us with the most detailed and vivid picture of the triune God. If we want to know what God is like, the clearest answer is to be found in Jesus.
An analogy will help us grasp the fullness of what Paul is saying. If we want to know what the moon is like, we could look at a photograph taken from a small, inexpensive telescope. The image would be an accurate assessment of the moon, though not very clear and detailed. However, we would be wise to base our understanding of what the moon is like by looking at photos taken from the most state-of-the-art and powerful telescope available. That telescope will yield the clearest images of the moon.
Answer #2: But Paul goes one step further, and in doing so provides us with a second answer for why Jesus ought to be the Bible’s interpretive key. A couple paragraphs later in his letter to the church in Colossae, he proclaims that in Jesus “all the fullness of God lives in bodily form” (Col. 2:9). In other words, Jesus functions not just as the best metaphorical telescope through which we obtain the clearest image of God. Jesus is not just the most accurate and vivid picture of God. Jesus is the fullness of God in the flesh. In other words, to continue with our analogy, instead of just attempting to acquire the clearest picture of the moon, it is as if the moon was brought down from the heavens for us to see before our very eyes and touch with our very hands.
Like in this moon analogy, we can now safely reevaluate all of our previously held assumptions about God. In fact, we would be foolish not to do so. To be sure, all of the assumptions and conclusions that we had previously held were deduced from inspired revelations of what God is like. Still, it is right to reinterpret all of our former beliefs about God since we now have His full embodiment standing directly before us.
Paul is not the only one to make such a claim about Jesus. The author of Hebrews teaches us that Jesus Christ is the definitive revelation of God, superseding all previous revelations (Heb. 1:1-3). But most convincing of all are Jesus’ own words. To His disciples, Jesus declared, “If you had known Me, you would have known My Father also” (John 14:7). Furthermore, in His famous mountainside sermon Jesus revealed that He is the preeminent interpreter of Scripture. Repeatedly in the sermon, Jesus would quote a portion of the Hebrew Scriptures and then proceed to explain those words in a way that ran counter to the usual Jewish interpretation (see Matt. 5-6).
Answer #3: There is a third answer as to why Jesus is intended to be the lens through which we read and interpret all of Scripture. Not only is Jesus the clearest image and full embodiment of God. An equally important part of Jesus’ mission on earth was to reveal all that God intended humanity to be. In the words of Walter Wink, “God, incarnated and humanized in Jesus…became the archetype of humanness for all.”[i] Jesus modeled what it looks like to live as a child of God. He is the model human. This is why Paul repeatedly instructs Christians to “imitate Christ” (e.g. 1 Cor. 11:1). And this is why Jesus says to His disciples, “As the Father has sent me into the world, so I send you” (John 20:21).
To recap: (1) Jesus is the clearest image of God, (2) all the fullness of God dwells in Jesus’ bodily form, and (3) Jesus is the perfect human, modeling the way God intended humanity to live. These three reasons are why Christians must allow Jesus to be the lens through which they read, interpret, and apply all of Scripture. In other words, these three observations about Jesus lead us to boldly and confidently assert that: Any portrayal of God and any call to a particular way of life that is espoused by Scripture must be filtered through the way of Jesus and His revelation of the triune God’s essential character, values and priorities. Again, this assertion is what I refer to as the Jesus-Centered Principle.
How The Jesus-Centered Principle Helps Us: This Jesus-Centered Principle is extremely helpful as we grapple with the plethora of violence contained in the Old Testament. No longer do we need to fear being perplexed and unable to reconcile these seemingly incompatible sets of teaching. The Jesus-Centered Principle counsels us to imitate Jesus even when His teachings seem to differ from what we read of God elsewhere in the Bible. In other words, regardless of whether you end up agreeing or disagreeing with how I’ve come to reconcile these seemingly conflicting sets of teaching on violence and treatment of enemies, either way, allow Jesus to be your definitive source for knowing what God is like and for ascertaining how to live your life.
Thus, if you see Jesus clearly teaching His followers to never violently resist and always actively love their enemies, then it is wrong to postpone obeying these commands with the excuse that you have yet to understand how His teachings line up with the rest of Scripture. Let me level with you: Jesus never commanded us to postpone loving as He loved until we have intellectually grappled with every teaching of His and figured out how to reconcile it with the rest of Scripture. Certainly, growing in our understanding of how Jesus fulfills the Scriptures is important and beneficial to our faith, but not if it comes at the expense of hesitating to follow and imitate Jesus. If Christians would obey Jesus while they continue to grapple with how to reconcile these seemingly conflicting teachings, there would be far less need for this series on violence in the Old Testament.
The Danger Of Jesus Not Being Your Interpretive Key: In 197AD, a prolific writer, apologist and Church leader named Tertullian wrote an argument for why no Christian ought to be a soldier. In so doing, for the first time in Church history, we read about Christians serving in the military. What is of interest for us today is that Tertullian informs us that these Christian soldiers supported their position “by appealing to the examples of Moses, Aaron, Joshua, [and] the Israelites.”[ii] In other words, they justified their ethical stance through Old Testament examples. After the time of Constantine, the Church increasingly looked to the Old Testament to justify the permissibility of Christians using violence. For example, John of Mantua in 1087 AD wrote, “Do not ever be ashamed, O Bride of Heaven, to take up the sword against heretics; for the God still lives who sanctified such action through the arms of David.”
Jesus Rebukes His Disciples For Justifying Their Actions With An Old Testament Example: Thankfully, we can know without a shadow of a doubt that Jesus abhors it when His followers justify their actions with Old Testament examples that are not in line with His character, values, and way of life. The interaction between Jesus and His two disciples James and John in Luke 9:52-56 makes this point very clear. It reads:
“And as they [Jesus and His disciples] went, they entered a village of the Samaritans, to prepare for Him. But they did not receive Him, because His face was set for the journey to Jerusalem. And when His disciples James and John saw this, they said, ‘Lord, do You want us to command fire to come down from Heaven and consume them, just as Elijah did?’ But He turned and rebuked them, and said, ‘You do not know what manner of spirit you are of. For the Son of Man did not come to destroy men’s lives but to save them.’” (emphasis added).
Do you notice what happened in this scene? James and John want to see God utterly destroy the inhabitants of this ungrateful Samaritan village. What is easy to overlook yet profoundly important for us to notice is that they justify their request with an example from the Old Testament! In short, they say, “Let’s pray for God to consume these people with fire, just as Elijah did.” However, despite there being biblical precedent for such an action, Jesus harshly rebukes these two disciples. Could Jesus’ answer be any clearer? “You do not know what manner of spirit you are of,” Jesus replied. “For the Son of Man did not come to destroy men’s lives but to save them.” Amen!
Conclusion: My prayer today is that each of us will commit to this Jesus-Centered Principle. May Jesus be the lens through which we read and apply all of Scripture. I’ll say it once more because it is extremely important: Any portrayal of God and any call to a particular way of life that is espoused by Scripture must be filtered through the way of Jesus and His revelation of the triune God’s essential character, values and priorities. Thus, even while we are struggling to reconcile these apparently incompatible sets of teaching on violence in the Old and New Testaments, let’s confidently follow after our Prince of Peace.