Co-written with David Pope
It has been said that a person can but minister out of their ‘overflow’, that is, out of the abundance of the Word of God in them and their personal experience. It is with this thought in mind that we present this third and final installment to our “Issues of Life” series, in which we will examine the Bible’s teaching on self-defense, firearms and the military. I (Dave) came to saving faith in Christ on the 2d/3d September 1995, during OPERATION DELIBERATE FORCE, off the coast of Bosnia. No ordinary ‘foxhole conversion’ this, as I was an Aviation Ordinanceman. This meant that my military responsibility was to assemble items of ordinance for tactical aircraft. Having seen plenty of the ‘Desert Storm’ style bomb damage assessment films, I was ENTIRELY aware of the destructive power of these weapons of war. And, being a new believer, I had heard all my life that, “…thou shalt not kill” and “…vengeance is Mine, saith the LORD…’. So you can see the quandary I faced.
As with all of the other issues covered in this series of teachings, the subject of self defense, firearms and the military cover a wide range of ethical and spiritual questions: Did Jesus advocate pacifism? Is taking human life always wrong? Does “Turn the other cheek” mean that we must allow ourselves, our families and our nation to be at the mercy of those who wish to do us harm? As we examine these subjects, we will begin by looking at some interesting instructions given by Jesus as He prepares His disciples for their mission: “And he said unto them, When I sent you without purse, and scrip, and shoes, lacked ye any thing? And they said, Nothing (Luke 22:35).”
Here, Christ asks the disciples if, when He was with them, they ever lacked any thing. The obvious answer is ‘no’. However, notice His follow-up statement recorded in verse 36: Then said he unto them, But now, he that hath a purse, let him take [it], and likewise [his] scrip: and he that hath no sword, let him sell his garment, and buy one.
Notice “…but NOW,…’ He is preparing them for the challenges that will come as they carry out the Gospel plan. While there certainly are circumstances in which a believer may be called on to lay down his/her life for the sake of the Gospel (Matthew 10:39; John 12:25; Acts 7:58-60; 12:2; Hebrews 11:35-37), it is not simply a matter of being a martyr for martyrdom’s sake. There are instances in which self defense is a perfectly proper and necessary part of stewarding our lives to God’s glory. Just like eating right ( Proverbs 25:16, 23:1-3), exercising ( I Timothy 4:8, I Corinthians 3:16-17), and other activities that improve the physical body and sharpen the intellect (I Timothy 4:16), God wants us to do our part in living out our days and fully accomplishing His plan for our lives. As King David so eloquently put it: ” For in death there is no remembrance of thee: in the grave who shall give thee thanks (Psalm 6:5)?”
“But didn’t Jesus tell us to turn the other cheek?” Yes (Matthew 5:38-48), but it is important to keep in mind the context He was speaking in. In Jesus’ day, a common form of insult was to give someone a backhand slap to the face. What Jesus was saying was this: If someone insults you, don’t stoop to their level. Don’t seek personal vengeance-that is God’s perogative (Romans 12:19). Instead, simply turn the other cheek and walk away. He was not, in any way implying that if you are physically threatened or attacked that you cannot defend yourself. There is a huge difference.
By directly instructing His followers to purchase a sword, Jesus clearly shows that He did not see owning a weapon as being sinful. In fact, He described His mission as bringing a sword to the earth (Matthew 10:34). This is echoed throughout the entirety of Scripture: Abraham armed his servants to pursue his brother’s captors (Genesis 14:14). As he was dying, Isaac blessed his son Jacob to live by the sword (Genesis 27:38-40). Part of God’s covenant with Israel was that their enemies would fall before them by the sword (Leviticus 26:7-8). As these verses abundantly show us, weapons in and of themselves are amoral. They can be used for good, as well as for evil.
When a murder does occur, God’s prescription is simple: The murderer is to be executed (Genesis 9:6; Exodus 21:12-15, 20, 23-25, 29; Leviticus 24:17-22; Numbers 35:30-34; Romans 13:1-4) (1). Again, note that the focus of judgement is the criminal, not the inanimate object used in committing the crime. Nowhere in the Bible does God order any sort of confiscation of weapons. As we have seen, He recognizes their use as being a necessary part of life. As theologians J. P. Moreland and Norman Geisler put it:
…to permit murder when one could have prevented it is morally wrong. To allow a rape when one could have hindered it is an evil. To watch an act of cruelty to children without trying to intervene is morally inexcusable. In brief, not resisting evil is an evil of omission, and an evil of omission can be just as evil as an evil of commission. Any man who refuses to protect his wife and children against a violent intruder fails them morally. (2)
In ancient Israel, there was no standing military with government issued weapons. When war broke out, the nation was jointly called to arms. It was understood that each citizen would possess his own weapon (see Numbers 1:3). Even in nonmilitary activities, God’s people recognized the risk of armed attack, and took appropriate precautions ( Nehemiah 4:17-18).
Working for peace is certainly a noble, godly pursuit (Matthew 5:9; 1 Peter 3:11). No sane person likes war. However, this does not mean that the Bible endorses pacifism. On the contrary, there were wars which God Himself ordered to be fought, even to the point of telling His people to “utterly destroy” the enemy (Deuteronomy 7:2; 20:17). In fact, some of the greatest heroes in the Bible were military personal. These would include men such as King Jehosaphat, who headed up his army with people singing and praising the Lord (2 Chronicles 20:20-23). In fact, King David even specifically praised God for “teaching his hands to war” (Psalm 144:1).
In the pursuit of peace, a strong military is a necessary agent in establishing and maintaining that peace. If we refuse to take up arms under any circumstances, it is an unavoidable fact that we WILL live under tyranny. For example, it is horrifying to imagine what the condition of the world would be had World War II not been fought in order to stop Adolf Hitler. As we discussed in our previous message, the civil government, which includes the military, was established by God to be His agent in maintaining order in society, even if it becomes necessary to use lethal force, i.e. “the sword” (Romans 13:4).
The New Testament gives us further valuable insight by examining how Jesus, as well as the early church, interacted with the military personal they encountered. In Luke 7:1-10, we read a beautiful account of a centurion military leader coming to Jesus, desperately seeking help for his critically ill servant, whom Jesus consequentially heals.
While there are many important lessons we can learn from these verses, what we’re looking at here is the fact that as He ministered to this centurion, (history tells us that a centurion was a commander over at least 100 men), Jesus did not rebuke him in the least for his military occupation. Instead, Jesus commends him for his great faith, a faith so strong and pure that it put all of Israel to shame (verse 9).
Moving on, we’ll look at the very first recorded Gentile convert, Cornelius (Acts 10:1-48). Like the officer Jesus ministered to, Cornelius also held the prestigious military rank of centurion. While the reader is invited to study these verses at leisure, our point here is that when Peter came and preached to him, he said not a word about the centurion’s profession of arms. (verses 34-44). Similarly, the Apostle Paul encountered a number of these centurions during his ministry ( Acts 21:32; 22:25-26; 23:17, 23; 24:23; 28:16). Again, not once did he rebuke these men for the profession of arms. In fact, Paul taught that Christians should remain in their pre-conversion professions (I Corinthians 7:20-24; Ephesians 6:5-8; Colosians 3:22-25), providing their profession is not sinful or occasion to stumble to new converts (Romans 13:13-21; I Corinthians10:23; II Corinthians 6:14-18). By all indications, Paul saw military service as being a perfectly legitimate occupation.
As we discussed in our previous study, we live in a fallen world inhabited with fallen people who are capable of some horrendous things. Thankfully, there will come a day when swords will be beaten into plow hooks, and we will study war no more (Isaiah 2:4; Micah 4:3). In the mean time, there will continue be times of war (Ecclesiastes 3:8; Matthew 24:6) . As we face these uncertain times, the only true security in a troubled world can be found in Jesus Christ. If you have never received Him, why not do it now?
(1) See our previous study, “Issues of Life 2: Capital Punishment,” available on request, or at http://www.geocities.com/Heartland/Woods/8255/deathpenalty.html
(2) Quoted in “Did Jesus advocate the use of a sword for self-defense purposes?” by Ron Rhodes. Reasoning From the Scriptures Ministries. Publishing Date Unknown. 20 February, 2003
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