Jesus has some really tough requirements for being a Christian. Some of his most challenging commands are about refusing violence as an option for solving issues and loving our enemies.1 Many would rather ignore what he had to say. His teachings violate our common sense. But how was it common sense for the omnipotent God to let himself get tortured and killed unjustly, rather than use his power to defeat his foes? The Kingdom is radical, holy (set apart) and beautiful, precisely because it is not “common”.
Many look for any example in scripture of Jesus supplying an out for his radical Kingdom requirements. Maybe if we can find Jesus being violent then he didn’t really teach us to be non-violent.
These are four verses that are commonly used to try to do just that.
1. Jesus Whipping People In The Temple
Didn’t Jesus use violence in the temple? He was flipping tables and he had a whip. That sounds pretty violent.
Let’s take a look at the verse.
So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple courts, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables.
Jesus was upset that Jerusalem’s temple courts had been turned into a marketplace. Among other abuses, priests were ripping people off by telling them the animal they bought to sacrifice didn’t meet their purity standards. People were thus forced to purchase a “temple certified” animal. The priests would then confiscate the allegedly substandard animal, only to turn around and sell it to the next worshiper who was told the animal they had bought was substandard. It was a money-making scam.2 Not only that but by turning the Gentile court into a marketplace it meant it could no longer properly be the place of prayer for the nations that God had wanted.
Most New Testament scholars agree that Jesus was not throwing a temper tantrum. It is agreed that Christ’s actions were a calculated, strategic act that contained deep symbolic significance. Jesus had come to Jerusalem with the expressed intention of being executed. Up to this point, the Jewish authorities were concerned about him but refrained from acting on their concern because of Jesus’ popularity with the crowds. By exposing their corruption, Jesus was now explicitly threatening their authority. This action in the temple forced them to start plotting his arrest and execution.
If Jesus acted in any way that was violent towards people he would have been arrested then and there by the Roman authorities. In all four Gospel accounts (Matthew 21:12-17, Mark 11:15-19, Luke 19:45-48, John 2:13-16) there is absolutely no violence mentioned. Instead, violence is often read into the text by modern American readers. There is nothing to indicate that even turning tables over was done with violence. It could have been done calmly and relatively gently as a symbolic act. Scripture says Jesus continued to teach in the Temple, something that wouldn’t have been possible if he actually was violent (Mark 11:17-19, Luke 19:46-48).
So what about the whip? While Jesus’ behavior was possibly aggressive, there is nothing in the text to indicate that he was being violent. There is no mention of Jesus using the whip on any animal or person. It is important to note that this story is told in all four of the Gospel books, yet the whip is only mentioned by John, which is significant because it is also only in John that the animals are mentioned. Cracking a loud whip has always been the most effective means of controlling the movement of large groups of animals. Lastly, it is important to note that Jesus made the whip in the Temple and he made it out of rope. It was makeshift and relatively harmless—even if he did use it on anyone—which he didn’t.
The religious officials were looking for a reason to kill Jesus (Mark 11:18; Luke 19:47). If Jesus was behaving violently in the Temple, this would have at least been grounds for arrest.
Clearly, when read in context, we can see that the whip was not used violently.
2. Jesus Came To Bring A Sword
Didn’t Jesus say he came not to bring peace, but to bring a sword? Clearly, Jesus wasn’t a pacifist!
Let’s take a look at the verse.
Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.
Read out of context, this verse seems to indicate that Jesus didn’t come to bring peace, but rather violence. Read in context though we will see that the opposite is true.
Jesus is preparing his disciples to proclaim the good news of the arrival of the Kingdom of God throughout the region. He warns them that he is sending them out “like sheep among wolves.” (v16) He tells them they will be arrested and beaten by these wolves, but not to be fearful. (v17-19) He then tells them that his message will cause great division even amongst family members. (v21)
Directly after saying that he didn’t come to bring peace, but a sword, he clarifies: “For I have come to turn a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law— a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.” (v35-36) The context makes it clear that “the sword” is a hyperbolic way of referring to divisions—especially among people who are normally closely bonded (family members). Because Jesus demands total allegiance, including allegiance over family, he will bring division.
If there is any doubt, when Luke interprets his metaphor, he doesn’t use the word sword: “Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division.” (Luke 12:51).
This is the “sword” that Jesus brings to the world. It is clear that while this “sword” involves not only division, but violence, none of the violence is carried out by the “sheep” Jesus is sending out. It is rather carried out by “wolves” who engage in violence against the “sheep,” which is precisely why Jesus instructs his disciples to be fearless in the face of death and to take up their cross, as he himself would do so in the near future. (v38-39)
Clearly, when read in context, we can see that Jesus didn’t mean he or his followers would cause violence.
3. Jesus Tells His Disciples To Buy Swords
Didn’t Jesus tell all his disciples to buy swords? Why would he do that if he was against having weapons?
Let’s take a look at the verse.
But now if you have a purse, take it, and also a bag; and if you don’t have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one.
Upon first glance, it seems as though Jesus is telling all his disciples to buy swords. Some find this strange given all Jesus had taught about abstaining from violence and loving even enemies. Why would he tell his disciples to get swords if his teachings would prevent them from using them? (Luke 6:27-36) On the assumption that Jesus would not blatantly contradict himself, we should start with the assumption that Jesus did not intend his disciples to use the swords he instructed them to buy. Several things stand out if we look further into Luke’s account.
First, Jesus was fulfilling a prophesy from Isaiah 53:12. The very next thing Jesus says is: “It is written: ‘And he was numbered with the transgressors’; and I tell you that this must be fulfilled in me. Yes, what is written about me is reaching its fulfillment.” (v37) It is apparent that the purpose for having some of his disciples carry swords was not so they could defend him, but simply to fulfill this prophecy, thereby justifying his opponents arrest of him as a political revolutionary.
Second, Luke references Isaiah to say the sword would be what numbers Jesus with the transgressors. Do we really want to use this verse to defend weapon ownership? The definition of a transgressor is to “violate a law, command, moral code, etc.; offend; sin.” Do we want to be numbered with transgressors? Do we want to not look like Jesus?
Third, if Jesus had intended the swords to be used to defend themselves, they would need more than two. In the following verse (v38) the disciples show Jesus two swords and he replies, “That’s enough!” Surely two swords is insufficient to defend thirteen men. Jesus wasn’t the first or the last messiah figure to come on the scene, and all of them were known for being violent revolutionaries. Two swords were sufficient to make Jesus appear as, and ultimately to be crucified as, a political transgressor.
Forth, it is important to read how Jesus and his disciples responded when the Temple Guard came just hours later. Peter asked Jesus, “Lord, should we strike with our swords?” Before Jesus could answer he “struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his right ear” (v50). Jesus then said, “No more of this!” (v51), clearly indicating that he never intended for his disciples to rely on the swords they brought.
Jesus then warns Peter (and us all) that “all who draw the sword will die by the sword,” (Matthew 26:52) a further repudiation of justified violence. After having rebuked this disciples’ typical worldly response to aggression, Jesus then modeled the way he would have disciples respond to aggression, by healing this guard’s ear (v51). Disciples are to serve, bless and pray for enemies, not afflict them.
Clearly, when read in context, we see that Jesus didn’t intend his disciples to use weapons.
(For a more in-depth look at Luke 22:36, read this article.)
4. Jesus Returns On A Horse With Sword In Hand
Sure, Jesus was all about nonviolence when he was on Earth but when he returns it’ll be with a sword to slaughter millions!
Let’s take a look at the verses.
I saw heaven standing open and there before me was a white horse, whose rider is called Faithful and True. With justice he judges and wages war. He is dressed in a robe dipped in blood, and his name is the Word of God. Coming out of his mouth is a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations. He will rule them with an iron scepter.
Revelation 19:11, 13, 15
The apocalyptic genre of this book completely rules out a literal reading, as virtually all New Testament scholars acknowledge. Even if you tried to read it literally, you’d run into many problems as there are a host of contradictions.
If we instead interpret Revelation in ways that are appropriate to the apocalyptic genre, realizing that it uses highly symbolic images for an emotive effect, these sorts of contradictions are not only not problematic, they are to be expected. The most ingenious aspect of this book is the manner in which John takes familiar violent images from the Old Testament and turns them on their head to reverse their original meaning. The most important example of this is when God is revealed to not be a vicious Lion but rather a slain Lamb. (read more on that here)
At every turn, John transforms violent images into images of anti-violence. We find the Messiah “dressed in a robe, dipped in blood”. This is a classic image of a valiant warrior who comes riding home from battle soaked in the blood of all the enemies he’s slain. The interesting thing is that Jesus is soaked in blood as he rides into battle! This warrior is the slain Lamb!
John is revealing that the Lamb defeats foes not by shedding his enemies blood, but by shedding his own blood on behalf of his enemies.
Those who would rather Jesus turn to violence often claim that he rides into battle with a sword in his hand. This simply isn’t the case though as you can see by reading that “coming out of his mouth is a sharp sword”. This is of course comical if taken literally. If we embrace the image in all of its symbolism, however, the meaning is profound. By placing the sword in the mouth of the slain Lamb, John is reversing its violent meaning. He is signifying that the Lamb warrior fights not by shedding blood, but simply by speaking the truth of God, thereby slaying the lies of Satan. This is why John states that the name of this warrior is “the Word of God”.
Lastly, it’s obvious that Jesus didn’t kill anyone with his sword, for immediately after saying Jesus struck down the nations, John proclaims that Jesus was now going to “rule them with an iron scepter”. Moreover, we later find these “slain nations” walking by the light of the Lamb (21:24). Having slain the nations that were deceived by Satan’s lies, the Lamb had set them free to see the truth. This is the kind of warfare the Lamb engages in.
Clearly, when read in context, we see that Jesus isn’t rejecting his ethics of nonviolence.
(For a more in-depth look at Jesus in Revelation, read this article.)
A Consistent Christ
Christians have a supreme mandate to live like Jesus and follow his teachings.
Whoever claims to live in him must live as Jesus did.
1 John 2:6
Jesus said, “Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching.”
Jesus calls disciples to unconditionally love enemies and, therefore, refrain from violence against them. This, in fact, is a precondition for being considered “a child of God” (Matthew 5:44-45). By exploring these four passages, it should now be clear that Jesus never contradicts himself and betrays his teachings of nonviolence. God lives out nonviolent love towards us, and we are to do the same for others.
He was assigned a grave with the wicked,
and with the rich in his death,
though he had done no violence,
nor was any deceit in his mouth.