In my reading, I’m noticing again how consistent Jesus, Paul, and Peter are when it comes to the Christian response to evil perpetrated against us.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile” (Matt. 5:38-41).
“Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ No, ‘if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Rom. 12:17-21).
“Do not repay evil for evil or abuse for abuse; but, on the contrary, repay with a blessing … Keep your conscience clear, so that, when you are maligned, those who abuse you for your good conduct in Christ may be put to shame. For it is better to suffer for doing good, if suffering should be God’s will, than to suffer for doing evil” (1 Pet. 3:9, 16-17).
Wow. “Never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God,” “it is better to suffer for doing good,” and “do not resist an evildoer.”
How do these principles align with how I live my daily life as a follower of Jesus? Could Jesus and his followers have been so radical in their teaching that they would ask us to willingly give up our rights to protection, safety, and retaliation? If someone hits me I’m not only supposed to remain noncombatant, but also offer my assailant the opportunity to do it again? It sure seems that way.
I’m not saying it’s an easy thing to do. To be honest, I’m not sure that I trust myself to repay evil with blessings. To look at someone who wants to hurt me – or someone who has hurt me – and say “I love you” seems counterintuitive. It seems crazy! But that’s what Jesus calls his followers to do.
“But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you” (Luke 6:27-28).
Obedience to the cross
I have to do my very best to live out the commands of Jesus – even if it means I am harmed in the process. In fact, fear of harm is antithetical to following Jesus:
“Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul” (Matt 10:28).
Moreover, Jesus told his disciples:
“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Matt. 16:24).
This is not a cute metaphor or an exhortation to deny yourself pizza for dinner or keep from having sex before marriage. The only context for the cross in Jesus’ day was as a humiliating Roman execution method. It was the means by which an authoritarian regime crushed the sprit of rebellion in conquered people groups. For the disciples, the image of crosses dotting the side of the road as they traveled would not have been far from their minds.
Jesus doesn’t leave room for ambiguity in his command either. Because of the versification of Scripture, Christians today will often read pieces of the Bible without context, leading them to vastly different interpretations than what was intended (ever read Jeremiah 29:11 all by itself?). However, if we had any illusions about Jesus’ command being metaphorical – some sort of play on words that actually means “don’t be selfish” – he puts that idea to rest:
“For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul?” (Matt. 16:25-26).
If given to us today, Jesus’ exhortation may have been “If you want to follow in my footsteps, sit down in the electric chair,” or “If you want to be like me, give yourself over to the firing squad,” or maybe “Anyone who wants to be like me should be willing to deny their own passions for prosperity, safety, and success, and instead be willing to die when confronted by evil.”
How do we, as modern followers of Jesus, look at the juxtaposition of Jesus’ words here and not draw a straight line between 1) taking up a cross, 2) saving one’s life equated to losing it, and 3) gaining the world being no profit to one who loses their soul?
In much the same way that taking up one’s cross has been modified to mean “practice self-sacrifice,” the Gnostic-leaning American church has often taken Matthew 16:26 and turned it into a pseudo-spiritual call to “focus on godly things and don’t focus on material gain.”
In contrast, Jesus directly equates the loss of one’s soul with the denial of the cross. We see this lived out in the lives of the disciples:
- Peter was crucified upside-down by the Roman emperor Nero.
- Andrew was scourged and crucified by the Roman proconsul Aegeates.
- James (son of Zebedee) was beheaded by Herod Agrippa (Acts 12:1-19).
- Philip was scourged, imprisoned, and crucified in the Egyptian city of Heliopolis.
- Thomas was run through with a spear by the local religious authorities in Greece.
- Matthew was stabbed in the back by an assassin sent by King Hertacus in Ethiopia.
- He was killed because he criticized the king’s morals, similar to John the Baptist. Speaking truth to authority often doesn’t end well for followers of Jesus.
- James (half-brother of Jesus) was beaten and stoned by religious persecutors in Jerusalem.
- Thaddaeus was crucified in Edessa in 72 AD.
- Simon the Zealot was crucified in England in 74 AD.
- Judas, of course, killed himself after his betrayal of Jesus.
- Judas’ replacement, Stephen, was stoned and beaten to death by a crowd that was incited to anger by Jewish synagogue leaders in Asia (Acts 7).
- John was the only disciple who did not meet a violent end at the hands of a hostile government, religious leader, or angry mob. He died peacefully after being exiled on the island of Patmos.
Imagine exile being the most preferable option for an early Christian leader.
Although many of these accounts are not directly referenced in Scripture, the death of Stephen provides a biblical example of how followers of Jesus reacted when faced with death:
“While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’ Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them.’ When he had said this, he died” (Acts 7:59-60).
This echoes the words of Jesus while he was hanging on the cross:
“…they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. Then Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing'” (Luke 23:33-34).
What do we learn from Jesus’ closest friends and most devoted disciples? They very literally 1) took up their cross, 2) repaid evil with blessings, and 3) forgave those who killed them. To use the term Christian in its most literal meaning, they acted like “Little Christs.”
Following in Jesus’ footsteps
My takeaway from this study is simple to understand, but incredibly difficult to put into practice. If I am to follow Jesus, then I have to do the things he says to do. I have to act like Jesus acted.
The most practical, most honest, and most literal interpretation of Jesus’ words and the disciples’ actions is to not resist an evildoer – even to the point of death. This radical, nonsensical means of living is not only a command from Jesus, but the proof by which the world is shown the unrelenting love of Jesus.
Some may respond to this message saying, “Well, Jesus’ submission to harm at the cost of his own safety was necessary because he had to die on the cross. Plus, the disciples had to die as proof of Jesus resurrection and to spread the early church!”
However, Christ’s call to submission in the face of evildoers is consistent through the New Testament. Here are Peter’s words to slaves living under cruel masters:
“If you endure when you are beaten for doing wrong, what credit is that? But if you endure when you do right and suffer for it, you have God’s approval. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps … When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly” (1 Peter 2:20-23).
Christ’s example of nonviolence was not just necessary for an extreme few. It was an example so that we might “follow in his steps.” In fact, paradoxically, the sacrificial laying down of our lives is how the followers of Jesus defeat Satan:
“But they have conquered [Satan] by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they did not cling to life even in the face of death” (Revelation 12:11).
So how do we live this out practically? We continue to walk in lock-step with Jesus.
Counter violence against others with sacrifice: In John 8, when Jesus came upon the woman who had been caught in adultery, his response was not to beat back her accusers or call together his followers to fight them away. Instead, he placed himself in front of the firing squad. He confronted their sins directly and advocated for mercy in response to someone else’s sin. In this example we see that, while nonviolence is commanded by Jesus, nonviolence is not synonymous with inaction.
Counter violence against yourself with forgiveness: The examples of Stephen and Jesus demonstrate the power of nonviolence in the face of opposition. This isn’t just nice words in response to mean behavior. This is radical, loving, self-sacrificial submission in the face of physical violence. Peter and Paul both support the actions and words of Jesus, and all of Jesus’ disciples lived out this truth.
Oppose death, even for your enemies: In Acts 16, Paul and Silas are freed from prison as a result of a supernatural earthquake. When the jailer there saw the cells had been opened, he opted to take his own life with his sword, but Paul yelled for him to stop saying, “Don’t harm yourself, because all of us are here!” Paul and Silas refrained from escaping the prison where they had been bound because they knew their jailer (their enemy) would face great shame and punishment. They sought his welfare even though he was facilitating their suffering.
Welcome the refugee, take care of the poor, provide for the hungry – even when it’s unsafe: In Matthew 25, Jesus tells a parable concerning the final judgment. In that story the dividing line between those who inherit the Kingdom of God and those who don’t is defined by whether or not they fed the hungry, clothed the naked, welcomed the foreigner, and visited the sick. If Jesus saw these issues as paramount to inheriting the Kingdom, then our personal safety cannot supersede it. There is no exception in Scripture for our personal safety. If anything, Jesus’ teaching contradicts this view.
When we mess up (and we will), we ask for forgiveness: “So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister.” Jesus encourages us to pursue reconciliation. If we harm or offend a brother or sister in Christ, it is our duty to put everything else on hold (even our worship) to go and make things right.
Finally (and this one requires an exegetical study all to itself), consider how Jesus and the early church regarded the use of weapons, even for self-defense: I am not going to tell you to never own a weapon. That would be silly. There are legitimate uses for firearms beyond harming others (hunting, sport, gathering audio data so our video games sound more accurate). But we should, very humbly, seek out what the New Testament has to say about the use of swords as a parallel to how we view guns (or any other weapon) today. Look at how Jesus instructed his disciples to live. The only instance in which Jesus says to bring a sword is in Luke 22, where he immediately follows with a specific reason:
“What is written must be fulfilled in Me: ‘And He was counted among the outlaws.'”
For Jesus to be crucified, Rome would have to convict him as a revolutionary. With swords in their hands, Jesus and his disciples would be viewed as potential revolutionaries and, therefore, Jesus would fulfill Isaiah 53 and be “counted among the outlaws.” If Rome didn’t have legal grounds to incriminate Jesus, there would have been no crucifixion. This doesn’t sound like the blanket excuse for arming Christians that many in the church have made it out to be.
There is much more we could discuss, but I think this is a good place to start. Thank you for taking the time to read through what I have been working through in Scripture over the past several months.
As I get more involved in Scripture, I see more and more admonitions to love our enemies, deny our own personal desire for safety, and pursue the protection of “the least of these.” This article outlines only a small part of that, but I believe it is a good starting point for an important conversation in the church. I pray that the church would serve as a positive example of the sacrificial love of Christ.