I have been laboring to demonstrate in this series that Jesus specializes in turning all expectations about his own person and mission wildly upside down. Jesus’ tendency to subversion is often bandied about—even crudely celebrated—in vague fashion by many would-be revolutionary Christian thinkers, but arguably this recurring theme in his ministry requires much more elaboration and particularity than it often receives. In what way was Jesus allegedly so subversive in his teaching? In previous posts, I have alluded to how Jesus and the NT writers consistently subvert the nature of triumph, of kingship, and of suffering. Today I zero in on how Jesus turns the standard Jewish OT understanding of holy war—and the zealous expectation that the Messiah would represent its climactic embodiment (Acts 5:36-37 is one example)—on its head in dramatic form.
Frank Thielman has argued in his New Testament Theology that two poles or emphases need to be constantly held together in tension concerning the relationship between Jesus and the Old Testament. On the one hand, in an exhaustive sense Jesus is presented to us in the Gospels (and later NT writings) as fulfilling the entire trajectory and all the prophecies of the Hebrew Scriptures (a fact conservative scholars love to point out). On the other hand, the manner in which Jesus fulfills these ancient expectations is radically surprising, even shocking, and seems to have no precursory parallels in ancient Judaism (a fact liberal scholars love to point out). The kingdom comes—but it comes in weakness. Jesus is enthroned as the archetypal Davidic king—at his crucifixion, when all power is taken away from him. He promises the glory of reigning with him in a new world to his followers—if they will take up their crosses and follow his example of suffering, if they will become last and least, if they will become as little children. He will conquer the Gentile nations and bring them into submission to Israel’s Yahweh—through laying down his life in service to them, not through compulsion. The framework of the OT expectations holds firm on point after point, but the content within it is massively revised and re-imagined in ways that not even his closest disciples seem to be able to handle or accept. The significance of this motif both for how we read our Bible and for how we live the “normal” Christian life are countless.
Consider now the way in which Jesus cleverly redeploys the frequent OT theme of holy war throughout his ministry. Immediately this makes us nervous, of course. Holy war conjures up images in our minds of crusading, murdering Christian soldiers in the Middle Ages or Muslim fundamentalists crashing planes into skyscrapers. Yet to fully grasp Jesus’ subversion of the idea, we need to have such extreme, repugnant examples before our eyes. In Matthew 11:12, Jesus says that “from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force.” A similar utterance is recorded in Luke 16:16: “The Law and the Prophets were until John; since then the good news of the kingdom of God is preached, and everyone forces his way into it.” There has been, admittedly, much controversy and debate over these sayings, with a correspondingly ridiculous number of varying interpretations proposed by scholars. In the end, though, most interpretations can be broken down into two basic categories. Are the “violent” people mentioned by Jesus unbelievers hostile to his coming and kingdom, maliciously seeking to oppose it with deadly force? Or are the “violent” ones a metaphorical depiction of the attitude he expects his own disciples to embody in their pursuit of and devotion to the kingdom of God? Following in the eminent footsteps of Flannery O’Connor, I am persuaded of the latter rendering, for at least two reasons.
First, it doesn’t make much sense why Jesus would ascribe hostile, violent opposition to God’s purposes as dawning initially with his own ministry. Throughout the gospels, Jesus consistently depicts the unbelieving rejection of his ministry by the contemporary religious leaders as eerily similar to—even the final culmination of—the long-standing tradition of rejection towards God’s messengers found in the OT (just check out the parable of the vineyard for one sterling example). Second—and much more crucially—Jesus frequently pictures the ideal human response to his claims and presence with violent imagery.
In Matthew 5:27-30, 18:7-9 and Mark 9:43-47, Jesus famously urges prospective tagalongs to be willing even to gouge out their own eyes or slice off their own hands if these disloyal body parts keep them from joyfully surrendering to the incoming arrival of the kingdom in Jesus. Entrance into this kingdom—which did begin after the Law and the Prophets which lasted until John!—is so vital and valuable that the costly sacrifice we must be ready at a moment’s notice to make in response to its comprehensive demands can be justly portrayed as violent. In Luke 12:49-53, Jesus speaks of a baptism of fire that he comes to bring (like Elijah on his enemies?; cf. Luke 9:54, which seems to indicate that this is indeed how Jesus’ disciples wrongly perceived his intended meaning). He also strangely denies that his mission is one of peace—instead, he brings a sword, and his presence means division and acrimony even among the closest members of a family (cf. also Matthew 10:34-39). Peter too seems to have missed the point of this speech (Matthew 26:51-52, Mark 14:47, Luke 22:49-51). At other times Jesus speaks of hate as the emotion he hopes to stir up among his followers—hate even of their own loved ones (Luke 14:26). Finally, in Luke 13:24 Jesus urges the disciples to “strive to enter the narrow door. For many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able.” The word translated as “strive” here (agonizomai) is the Greek word from which we have derived “agony” in English, and in John 18:36, I Timothy 6:12 and II Timothy 4:7 it surely bears violent overtones of fighting and grappling and conflict.
“The Kingdom demands a response so radical that it may be described in terms of violence and force…All of this metaphorical language [of violence and warfare] describes the radical character of the decision demanded by the Kingdom of God. The modern man is usually quite casual about his religion. He will often undertake radical measures in the pursuit of wealth, success, power; but he is unwilling to become deeply moved about the concerns of his soul. Jesus says that such a man cannot know the life of the Kingdom. It demands a response, a radical decision, an enthusiastic reception. Nominalism is the curse of modern western Christianity. Jesus’ disciples must be radicals in their unqualified enthusiasm for the life of God’s Kingdom.” (George Ladd, The Gospel of the Kingdom, pp. 99-100)
In an upcoming issue of the Ichthus it sounds as if several contributions will examine the holy wars of the Old Testament. Whatever else we make of the moral status of God’s commands to Israel to take up military arms and destroy the godless pagan nations surrounding them (a pressing apologetic issue in our pluralistic society if ever there was one!), this much must be said by Christians. Whereas virtually all Jews in Jesus’ day took these historical massacres at face value and fully expected the approaching Messiah to be a conquering militaristic figure from the line of King David (who could not build a house for God because he was a man of bloodshed), and who would proceed to trample upon and expel the Romans in force and restore the kingdom and the land to Israel by means of holy war, Jesus flatly contradicted such a desire.
Yet to merely say that Jesus simply did not meet the expectations of the Jewish milieu and the OT prophetic tradition would be woefully insufficient, even inaccurate if stated in isolation. Jesus absolutely did fulfill what the motif of holy war in the OT represented—just as he summed up in himself the OT hope of kingship, kingdom, triumph, and redemption. Yet like all those others, in fulfillment he also simultaneously subverted it. The concept is still there, but the content within has been morphed with a vengeance. We are Jesus’ soldiers and conscripts in the marauding army of the Lamb. We engage in fierce battle every moment of our lives; we fight the good fight of faith, and we must finish it (II Timothy 4:7). Yet this battle is not against Rome, and we do not fight as the righteous against sinners. The church of Jesus Christ does not advance the gospel with the sword, or come against external evil with physical violence:
“I, Paul, myself entreat you, by the meekness and gentleness of Christ—I who am humble when face to face with you, but bold toward you when I am away!—I beg of you that when I am present I may not have to show boldness with such confidence as I count on showing against some who suspect us of walking according to the flesh. For though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ, being ready to punish every disobedience, when your obedience is complete.” (II Corinthians 10:1-6)
Two main enemies are opposed to the people of God in this age: Satan and sin. Against both we are to engage in violent struggle even unto death. We return each Sunday to gather together in fellowship and to worship the crucified, risen Jesus with our shields or on them. Against Satan and his diabolical forces, consider Ephesians 6:10-20. Against sin, consider John Owen’s sobering exhortation in Mortification of Sin in Believers: Be killing your sin, or your sin will be killing you. If you have to, if it is the only alternative left to you prior to treason and defection—then poke out your wandering eyes and cut off your disobedient hands. Better a maimed soldier returning to the victor’s crown than a traitor preserved whole but now opposed to Jesus our King (Hebrews 6:4-8).
Jesus’ holy war–his unfamiliar jihad–is to be directed without mercy chiefly toward ourselves, toward our own fallen adulterous hearts. For even Satan’s influence is ultimately indirect–he can harm us only insofar as he convinces us to sin of our own willing volition. Therefore, sin is worse than both suffering and Satan. Which of us thinks that way? Which of us actually lives as if that were true? So we must fight daily to be satisfied in Jesus alone, and to destroy every conflicting affection which remains in the old man. It is the most profoundly consequential struggle currently underway in this groaning creation. It is a fight that will last until we breathe our last, or Christ comes again in glory–or until we surrender, laying down our arms and losing our souls. How then can we not pray unceasingly like this?
O great God of highest heav’n
Occupy my lowly heart
Own it all and reign supreme
Conquer every rebel pow’r
Let no vice or sin remain
That resists your holy war
You have loved and purchased me
Make me Yours forever more