Open Matthew 5:43-48.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus paints a picture of the earth restored under God’s government. Earthly governments have always relied on violence to conquer each other and build kingdoms. (See Why war?) Israel’s prophets envisaged a day when the Messiah would sort out their enemies and restore peace under God’s reign. Their useless swords would be repurposed as tines for the plough (Isaiah 2:4; Micah 4:3). It’s a wonderful vision. What a difference it would make to repurpose the world’s military spending — US $1.6 trillion dollars— to growing food instead of preparations to kill people!
So should the nations just demilitarize now? And if their enemies refuse, should God’s people unilaterally demilitarize? What would happen if we didn’t fight back?
There was a moment when Israel had tried that. For a single day. With disastrous results. This was four generations before Jesus:
1 Maccabees 2:38–41 (NRSV)
38 So they attacked them on the sabbath, and they died, with their wives and children and livestock, to the number of a thousand persons. … 40 And all said to their neighbours: “If we all do as our kindred have done and refuse to fight with the Gentiles for our lives and for our ordinances, they will quickly destroy us from the earth.” 41 So they made this decision that day: “Let us fight against anyone who comes to attack us on the sabbath day; let us not all die as our kindred died in their hiding places.”
Governments are to protect the lives of their people. Providing peace and safety is a major part of the reason they exist. But once zealous rulers incite their subjects to kill their enemies, the bloodshed doesn’t stop. Under Jannaeus and his sons Aristobulus II and Hyrcanus II (Jesus’ grandparents’ time), the Jewish rulers slaughtered tens of thousands of their own people. The bloodshed only stopped when Rome took over. Talk about irony: an “enemy” had to stop God’s people killing each other!
That’s the trouble with human government. It’s a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it can help prevent bloodshed and alleviate suffering. On the other hand, the history of human kingdoms is the story of conquest and war.
So where does that leave the follower of Jesus? Do we obey our earthly government and go to war when asked? Or do we take Jesus literally and refuse to kill our enemies? Or do we weigh up each case to decide whether a particular war is just? Those are the three main positions Christians take on war.
To understand what Jesus meant, we must be clear about his audience. Jesus was not providing instruction to Rome about how to run the government. As far as we know, he never wrote to Caesar Tiberius or Herod to insist they demilitarize. He wasn’t addressing the human government. He was addressing the people who longed for God’s government (the kingdom of God).
And what he commanded his followers to do was to enact God’s kingdom now. That’s the point of the Sermon on the Mount. Don’t wait for someone else to judge you guilty of murder: deal with your anger now. Don’t wait until your wandering eye leads you into adultery; deal with your lust now. The Law permits divorce, but Jesus expects faithfulness. The Law allows oaths, but Jesus expects truthfulness. The Law allows retribution, but Jesus calls us to reconcile. The Law commands love of neighbours, but Jesus commands love of enemies. He calls us to live as subjects of his kingdom in the present evil world.
So what happens when our human government calls us to war? Do we fight to protect our nation? Do we kill those whom our government labels as enemies?
For the first three hundred years after Jesus, the church fathers answered that question with a single voice. No! They understood that the Christian’s primary allegiance is to Christ, and only secondarily to the state. My primary allegiance is to the kingdom of Christ, not the government of Australia. And King Jesus calls me to enact his government of peace. Consequently, I cannot look at Germans or Japanese or Vietnamese or Iraqis as enemies to be hated. Jesus demands I view them as human beings, and requires me to extend his love to them. I cannot kill them.
Only after Constantine did Christians began to talk about a “just war.” Only when the church assumed state power were Christians corrupted into thinking it was okay to kill our enemies instead of loving them.
Shamefully, there have been too many times when Christians have dehumanized other people, labelling them “enemies” so they could kill them. Today is Saint Patrick’s Day; I doubt I need remind you of the troubles in Ireland between two sides who called themselves “Christian” and shamed Christ’s name in the way they treated their “enemies.”
Jesus’ words were not directed at governments on matters of state. They are directed at you if you are his follower. If you acknowledge Jesus as Lord, he commands you to love your enemies. His command overrides any command you receive from an earthly authority demanding you kill your enemies. He calls us to enact the peace of his kingdom now while the world is still at war.
Yes, that’s dangerous. Look what happened to Jesus. And to his disciples. They put aside human weapons, refusing to view other flesh and blood humans as the enemy. Almost to a man, they were killed doing it. They believed it would bring peace on earth and ultimately end the hostilities.
War will never deliver peace. Peace will come through the people who enact the future now, living as the kingdom of God in the present evil age.
What others are saying
Ben Witherington III, The Indelible Image: The Theological and Ethical Thought World of the New Testament: The Collective Witness, vol. 2 (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2010), 492:
Loving one’s enemy excludes doing them bodily harm, much less killing them. Jesus extended the ethical implications of the love ethic to an extravagant extent and then demonstrated what it looked like in the last week of his life, leaving a reminder to the disciples that they should be prepared to follow in his footsteps. They had already been taught to pick up their own crosses and follow him, but he got to Golgotha before they did.
Preston Sprinkle, “Chapter 7: Love our Enemies” in Fight: A Christian Case for Non-Violence (Colorado Springs, CO: David C Cook, 2013):
Jesus’s Sermon is more than a personal ethic—a way in which individuals can be better people. Rather, the Sermon is intended to reconfigure God’s new community, to mold His people into a visibly different kingdom in the face of all other imposter kingdoms. …
Loving your enemies is the ideal. It’s no wonder that this command became the most-often-quoted verse during the first four centuries of the Christian church. For early Christians, enemy-love was the hallmark of what it meant to believe in Jesus. Oh, how things have changed. …
A person who chooses to love his or her enemies can have no enemies. That person is left only with neighbours.
[previous: Enemy love]
[next: Who is our enemy?]
2 thoughts on “His kingdom in a violent world (Matthew 5:43-48)”
This is so beyond sensical to me that it actually upsets me how people always have an opinion, but never spent an ounce of time understanding the hebrew culture and history.
1. You claim “The Law commands love of neighbours, but Jesus commands love of enemies. ”
> the truth is the that law commandant both. Go read it, it tells you numerous times in numerous ways to love your enemy. The problem is during the macabbean war the pharisees were teaching the jews to hate their enemies, which was AGAINST the law.
2. You use the argument that the 1st century church didn’t advocate Roman wars by not fighting in them.
> the first century church was mainly jewish converts who accepted jesus as their messiah. They weren’t roman citizens nor allowed to partake in the roman army.
I highly suggest you learn the hebrew history going forward.
Endar, thanks for engaging.
I agree with you that Jewish people have had had different views, and that it was only some who taught hate of enemies. But I was hurt by the accusation that I have “never spent an ounce of time understanding the Hebrew culture and history.”
I’m sure you’re familiar with the qal waḥomer. I’m sure you understand that Jesus, as a first century Jew, was asking his listeners to do much more than the way they were reading Torah. They (or some of them) thought that loving neighbours was enough to fulfil Torah, but Jesus explains that what God wants from his people is so much more.
I’m also aware of how Jewish people have suffered so much, even at the hands of people who called themselves Christians but were not following Jesus’ commands to nonviolence and love. I want to teach Christians to follow the way of Jesus.
I have visited Yad Vashem (the holocaust museum). There are no words I could say to make it right. I was particularly touched by the Garden of the Righteous, celebrating those who did protect and care for Jewish people. Perhaps they are an inspiration for us to do better, to show a deep respect and genuine love for the people Jesus belonged to.