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.”