Excerpt from “Jesus and Pacifism”: The Teachings of Christ

This article by Andrew Fulford appeared in the April issue of Ad Fontes magazine. This is an edited version of a section from the first title in a new series: the Davenant Guides. To subscribe to receive full issues in your inbox, click here.


At last we come to the matter at hand, and answer the question: was Jesus a pacifist? The previous sections in this book have provided strong prima facie evidence from Jesus’ background context and the earliest foreground interpretation of his legacy, that he was not a pacifist. Now a positive explication of Jesus’ teaching and example are needed.
The strongest and most common arguments for pacifism from Jesus’ teaching come from a few places in the Gospels. Primarily, these seem to be: the temptation narrative, the Sermon the Mount (and parallel texts), his teaching about taking up the cross, his teaching about Caesar, his teaching about Gentile rulers, and his teaching about taking the sword. Another argument comes from Jesus’ acceptance of his own crucifixion.


In Matthew’s account, the final temptation given to Jesus is world domination (Matt. 4:8-11):
Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. And he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Then Jesus said to him, “Be gone, Satan! For it is written, “‘You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.’” Then the devil left him, and behold, angels came and were ministering to him.
The pacifistic argument from this account usually follows the logic that this temptation represents the “zealot option” for Jesus’ ministry, and that in rejecting it, Jesus rejects violence in toto. However, there are several reasons to reject this interpretation. First, it wrongly conflates a zealot ideology, which is really a Holy War option, with a just war approach. Just war thinking follows certain criteria, including: (a) that a legitimate authority must wage war, (b) that the prospects of success in war must be probable for waging it to be licit, and (c) that acts of war should discriminate between the guilty and the innocent. Holy war thinking need not follow any of these criteria, and often has not in history.
Second, it overlooks the background to these temptations. In the wilderness temptation, Jesus recapitulates Israel’s wilderness wandering, but succeeds where Israel failed. This point is highlighted in the mode of Jesus’ reply: he quotes the word of God as sufficient reason for his obedience to God. He obeys God’s commands where Israel failed. In the desert, Israel caved into the temptation to worship idols. So in the present temptation, the command Jesus cites in reply to Satan is not “You shall not kill”, but “You shall worship the Lord your God, and him only shall you serve.”
A good positive explanation of this text is provided by the demonology of the NT. Paul teaches in 1 Cor. 10:20 that: “what pagans sacrifice they offer to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be participants with demons.” Further, the apostle confirms this assessment of Satan in a sense, when he states that the devil is (2 Cor. 4:4) “the god of this world”, and the apostle John echoes this concept in his first epistle (1 John 5:19): “the whole world lies in the power of the evil one.” For the NT, to live in any way other than obedience to God is, de facto, to be subject to and in fellowship with demons. Fellowship with evil can give pleasures for a time, including the pleasures of power. This is the temptation Jesus faced, and it is in fact the ultimate temptation: the temptation to replace God with the creature in our moral universe. Jesus’ rejection goes much deeper than a refusal of a certain kind of political tactic; his reply goes to the heart of the problem with the human condition. And this leads to the second background to the text, which is the failure of humanity at its origin, the fall of Adam and Eve in the garden. And what was the temptation they faced? Not the temptation to use violence, but the temptation to distrust God, and to strive for their desires in disobedience to his commands. It is this fundamental problem that Jesus’ refusal to worship Satan addresses, and not an ethically downstream matter like zealot violence.


In the preface to his book, The Sermon on the Mount: Inspiring the Moral Imagination, Dr. Dale C. Allison writes about two common errors in exegesis of this sermon:
Some people would say that the Sermon on the Mount is the quintessence of Christianity. I am not among them. The erroneous conviction comes from the unfortunate habit of viewing the Sermon in isolation. Readers, especially modern readers, have again and again interpreted Matthew 5-7 as though the chapters were complete unto themselves, as though they constituted a book rather than a portion of a book. Symptomatic is the occasional reprinting of the Sermon in anthologies of literature. But the three chapters that constitute the Sermon on the Mount, chapters surrounded on either side by twenty-five additional chapters, neither summarize the rest of Matthew nor sum up adequately the faith of Jesus, much less the religion of our evangelist. How could anything that fails to refer explicitly to the crucifixion and resurrection be the quintessence of Matthew’s Christian faith? …The Sermon on the Mount is in the middle of a story, and it is the first goal of this little commentary to interpret the discourse accordingly.
There is a second way in which this commentary seeks to place the Sermon in context. All too often in the past–the strategy goes all the way back to Tertullian and Augustine–the Sermon has been read against Judaism. That is, the superiority of Jesus and the church over against Judaism has been promoted by arguing that this word of Jesus or that expression of Matthew brings us, within the world of first-century Judaism, something startlingly new, or even impossible. Most such claims, however, do not stand up under scrutiny. What we rather have in the Sermon is the product of a messianic Judaism… [and] most of the sentiments found in the Sermon already appear, at least here or there, in old Jewish sources. It is primarily the relationship of those sentiments to one another and, above all, their relationship to the person of Jesus and his story that gives them their unique meaning for Christians. So responsible exegesis will seek to highlight the continuity between the Sermon and Jewish teaching, whether within the Hebrew Bible or without, and moreover the immense debt of the former to the latter. The time of polemic against Judaism is over. So too is the time when Christians could pretend, in the words of Adolf Harnack, to find in the Sermon on the Mount teaching “freed from all external and particularistic features.”[1]
The following commentary on Jesus’ teaching will attempt to do what Dr. Allison suggests should be done, i.e. interpret the sermon in these two contexts. In many cases, I will simply be following Dr. Allison’s lead in doing so. Dr. Allison also highlights another important aspect of this sermon that some interpreters throughout the centuries have missed:
One must reckon seriously with the fact that the Sermon on the Mount is partly a poetic text. By this is meant that it is, unlike codes of law, dramatic and pictorial. The reader sees a man offering a sacrifice in Jerusalem (5:23), someone in prison (5:25-26), a body without eye and hand (5:29-30), someone being slapped (5:39), the sun rising (5:45), the rain falling (5:45), someone praying in a closet (6:6), lilies in a field (6:28), a log in an eye (7:4), wolves in sheeps’ clothing (7:15). These images and comments upon the sermon hardly add up to anything can be called legislation. The Sermon does not offer a set of rules–the ruling on divorce is the exception–but rather seeks to instill a moral vision. …
The Sermon’s primary purpose is to instill principles and qualities through a vivid inspiration of the moral imagination. What one comes away with is not a grossly incomplete set of statutes but an unjaded impression of a challenging moral ideal.[2]
Below, we will highlight the texts used most often to support pacifism in order to show how they do not, as well as various other aspects of the Sermon that confirm Allison’s general analysis.


When Jesus said to Peter (Matt. 26:52), “Put your sword back into its place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword”, he uttered a common piece of timeless wisdom. This statement finds OT precedents, where it could not be pacifistic. What it really means is something people have truly recognized forever: that unjust aggression provokes vengeance from others. At least in the OT, however, this was not taken to mean that state coercion could never be effective. Further, it would find clear application in the case of revolutionaries and the seditious. These people, the OT taught, were very likely to meet a nasty end as a result of state vengeance. It is this aspect of the saying in particular which directly applies in Jesus’ context, for Peter’s violent act was committed against deputies of the state, and no doubt had a zealot holy war ideology as its engine. But Jesus knew the zealot agenda had no chance of succeeding against the might of the first century Roman empire. All those who took up the sword in that sense and context would surely die by it. And sadly, because they did not heed his warning, that is exactly what happened to Jewish zealot movements in 70 AD.


By far, the most common event in Jesus’ life used to justify pacifism is his submission to crucifixion. The basic claim is that his refusal to defend himself was an expression of his condemnation of violence in general. He regarded dying as preferable to killing in all situations, and so also in that situation.
But there are problems with this argument. Interpreting the intentions behind actions can often be difficult, for the same actions can be motivated by very different intentions. And such is the case with being willing to die. Granting that Jesus willingly suffered death, a number of possible explanations could provide the rationale for this act, without entailing pacifism.
One such motive would be to provide the propitiation for the sins of mankind. While some scholars have attempted to refute this possibility by denying the NT teaches Christ’s death was a propitiation, that attempt should be regarded as a failure. Though space does not permit defense of this here, Dr. John R. W. Stott’s masterpiece, The Cross of Christ, provides evidence that Jesus himself taught this was a purpose for his death, and interested readers would do well to begin with his survey.[3]   The logic of just war theory provides another [motive.] Given Jesus’ historical situation, where he knew very well that God did not wish to save him by means of legions of angels, and where his human followers had no political power, Jesus could not actually wage a successful war against the Herods, the Sanhedrin, and the Roman empire. He had no prospect of success. Further, in the system of human positive law that he lived under, Jesus had no political authority. These two facts alone mean, by just war logic, that he could not rightly fight the state when its agents came to arrest him. Just war criteria demanded his surrender at this point.
Pacifists will also sometimes suggest that Jesus’ death at the hands of the Romans somehow entails that government per se is always unjust, or at least that capital punishment is such. But of course, this does not follow with any kind of necessity from Jesus’ death. This conclusion must be read into his death first before it can be read out of it. For even in Jesus’ day people were well aware that unjust killing could happen (e.g., there were OT laws against murder for a reason) without concluding that capital punishment was therefore always unjust.
Andrew Fulford is currently studying for a PhD in Reformation history at McGill University. He is the author of Jesus and Pacifism and a contributor to the recently released Richard Hooker and Reformed Orthodoxy.


[1] Dale C. Allison, The Sermon on the Mount (New York: Crossroad, 1999), xi-xii.
[2] Allison, Sermon on the Mount, 11.
[3] John R. W. Stott, The Cross of Christ: 20th Anniversary Edition (Downer’s Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2006), 72-79.


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