A Biblical Perspective of Self-Defense and Civil Disobedience
A Free Excerpt
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Table of Contents
- Two Controversial Topics
- Part 1, Self-Defense
- Old Testament Background
- Is Killing a Person Always Murder?
- Capital Punishment
- Use of Deadly Force
- New Testament: Different Purpose and Emphasis
- Jesus’ Responses to Danger (see excerpt below)
- Jesus’ Teaching
- The Apostles’ Responses to Danger
- The Apostles’ Teaching
- Godly Character
- Peace Isn’t Always Possible
- Application to Self-Defense
- The Most Important Factor
- Old Testament Background
- Part 2, Civil Disobedience
- Old Testament Background
- Submission to Authority
- New Testament Examples
- Civil Disobedience That Honors God
- What About Revolt?
(Beginning of excerpt. Reading time: 14 minutes.)
Jesus’ Responses to Danger
The New Testament stresses the importance of Christians becoming like Jesus, which includes following his example in what we do. Let’s examine Jesus’ life and teachings as they relate to the topic of self-defense.
When Jesus was a young child, an angel of the Lord appeared to his father Joseph in a dream and warned him to leave the country because Herod wanted to kill the child (Matt. 2:13). God’s response to the threat of danger in this stage of Jesus’ life was to instruct his father to leave town. So Joseph took his family to Egypt to avoid the danger.
After Joseph learned that Herod was dead, he returned to Israel. “But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning in Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. Having been warned in a dream, he withdrew to the district of Galilee” (Matt. 2:22). Again, Joseph learned in a dream that Jesus’ life was in danger, so he moved to another area. This verse doesn’t state specifically God told him to leave Judea; only that he warned him in a dream of the danger.
After John baptized him in water, the Spirit led Jesus into the desert to be tempted by the devil. “After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. The tempter came to him and said, ‘If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread’…. Then the devil left him, and angels came and attended him” (Matt. 4:2 – 3, 11).
It’s significant that Jesus was hungry after he fasted forty days. After the first few days of fasting, one’s body adjusts and begins consuming nutrient reserves it has stored and the stomach stops feeling hungry. In about 40 days, these reserves are depleted and the person gets hungry again; if he doesn’t eat right away, he literally will starve to death. Jesus was at that point, but didn’t use his powers to provide for his urgent need; instead, angels attended him. In other words, he didn’t protect himself in this dangerous condition, but trusted God to care for him.
Later in his ministry, Jesus told his disciples to cross to the other side of a lake.
Then he got into the boat and his disciples followed him. Without warning, a furious storm came up on the lake, so that the waves swept over the boat. But Jesus was sleeping. The disciples went and woke him, saying, “Lord, save us! We’re going to drown!”
He replied, “You of little faith, why are you so afraid?” Then he got up and rebuked the winds and the waves, and it was completely calm. (Matt. 8:23 – 26)
Unconcerned for his own safety, Jesus slept through the storm. When the disciples awoke him, he reprimanded them for being afraid, then rebuked the storm and it became calm. He used his authority to take control of a life-threatening situation, then rebuked the disciples for not doing the same.
On another occasion, Jesus healed a man on the Sabbath, which infuriated the religious leaders who were present. “But the Pharisees went out and plotted how they might kill Jesus. Aware of this, Jesus withdrew from that place” (Matt. 12:14 – 15). Jesus simply left the area to avoid danger.
Soon afterward, he had another encounter with the Pharisees. “You brood of vipers, how can you who are evil say anything good?” (Matt. 12:34 – 37). He harshly rebuked them, not in retaliation for their accusations, but this time to correct their error and stubborn refusal to accept what God was doing. He knew their hearts and that they would later plot to kill him, but he wasn’t timid or reluctant to rebuke them.
Another time Jesus spoke in a local synagogue, he made a statement about God blessing individual Gentiles and not Israelites. “All the people in the synagogue were furious when they heard this. They got up, drove him out of the town, and took him to the brow of the hill on which the town was built, in order to throw him down the cliff. But he walked right through the crowd and went on his way” (Luke 4:28 – 30). The crowd tried to throw Jesus off a cliff, but he simply walked through the crowd to escape. The Scripture gives no rational explanation of how he did it; only that he protected himself by leaving. It wasn’t time for him to die.
Later, some Pharisees tried to get Jesus to leave their area.
At that time some Pharisees came to Jesus and said to him, “Leave this place and go somewhere else. Herod wants to kill you.”
He replied, “Go tell that fox, ‘I will drive out demons and heal people today and tomorrow, and on the third day I will reach my goal.’ In any case, I must keep going today and tomorrow and the next day–for surely no prophet can die outside Jerusalem!” (Luke 13:31 – 33)
Jesus focused on his mission despite the death threats and acknowledged he was ready to die when he reached Jerusalem.
In the parable of the ten minas (Luke 19:11 – 27), Jesus described a king who killed those who didn’t want him to rule over them. Based on our understanding of Scripture, the king in the parable represents Jesus himself when he returns to set up his kingdom on earth. He clearly wasn’t reluctant to talk about putting his enemies to death.
In Luke 20:9 – 16, Jesus told a parable in which a landowner killed the tenants who murdered his son. The people who heard the parable responded, “May this never be!” It seems Jesus’ position on capital punishment was stronger than the teaching of the religious leaders of his day.
Once when Jesus sent his disciples out to minister, he told them:
“But now if you have a purse, take it, and also a bag; and if you don’t have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one. It is written: ‘And he was numbered with the transgressors’; and I tell you that this must be fulfilled in me. Yes, what is written about me is reaching its fulfillment.”
The disciples said, “See, Lord, here are two swords.”
“That is enough,” he replied. (Luke 22:36 – 38)
Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem, and his reference to being numbered with the transgressors shows he knew he would be executed there as a criminal. He told his disciples to get a sword, even if they had to sell their cloak to buy one. They had two swords among them, and Jesus said that was enough. He clearly didn’t oppose the possession and use of swords, yet he indicated two swords were sufficient for the 11 disciples. They obviously weren’t heavily armed by today’s standards.
Were the swords just for show? Or to comfort his disciples until they learned to trust him? Or were they temporary measures until Jesus could get to heaven and protect them? Jesus never offered such explanations; neither did any of the apostles after his resurrection. So we can conclude Jesus intended his disciples to have swords and be prepared to use them, but not to defend him from arrest and crucifixion.
John’s gospel provides many more examples.
“After this, Jesus went around in Galilee, purposely staying away from Judea because the Jews there were waiting to take his life” (John 7:1). Jesus stayed away from an area because the people there would try to kill him. He was able to avoid capture or escape a mob, yet he chose to evade danger this time. Compare this with the next incident.
“At this they tried to seize him, but no one laid a hand on him, because his time had not yet come” (John 7:30). The Jews wanted to seize him and tried, but couldn’t. Verse 44 of that chapter also states, “Some wanted to seize him, but no one laid a hand on him.”
These verses don’t say whether Jesus eluded their grasp, disappeared into the crowd, exercised his authority and commanded the people to stop, or what he did. Since it doesn’t say, what he actually did is unimportant.
The point is the people couldn’t harm him because it wasn’t his time to die. Jesus knew when his “time” was; we typically don’t know when ours will be. However, like Jesus, we always can entrust ourselves to God’s care. If God is almighty, above all other powers and authorities as he claims, then no one can take my life until God says it’s my time to die. This greatly relieves me of responsibility for protecting myself, though he allows me to do so.
At another time, the Jews were arguing with Jesus about his statements when he said something they considered blasphemous. “At this, they picked up stones to stone him, but Jesus hid himself, slipping away from the temple grounds” (John 8:59). This verse doesn’t explain how Jesus hid himself from the crowd and slipped away, but he clearly left a hostile situation.
During the Feast of Dedication, the Jews demanded that Jesus tell them whether he was the Christ. His reply angered them, of course. “Again they tried to seize him, but he escaped their grasp” (John 10:39). They couldn’t seize him though they wanted to and tried.
There’s no mention in any of these incidents of Jesus struggling or defending himself. This alone doesn’t mean he did or didn’t. Scripture never says he put on his sandals, either, so silence on a subject usually means it’s irrelevant to the context. We don’t need to know how he escaped their grasp. In fact, due to our human nature, if we knew how he did it, we’d develop a ministry to teach people how to escape like he did and completely miss the point.
Then he said to his disciples, “Let us go back to Judea.”
“But Rabbi,” they said, “a short while ago the Jews tried to stone you, and yet you are going back there?”
Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? A man who walks by day will not stumble, for he sees by this world’s light. It is when he walks by night that he stumbles, for he has no light.” (John 11:7 – 10)
Jesus went back to Judea where the Jews had tried to stone him. His reply to his disciples about daylight may indicate they will be safe if they go when the time is right; or his reply might suggest a complete lack of concern for safety, even in broad daylight. In either case, he returned to the scene of a former dangerous encounter.
So from that day on [the Sanhedrin] plotted to take his life.
Therefore Jesus no longer moved about publicly among the Jews. Instead he withdrew to a region near the desert, to a village called Ephraim, where he stayed with his disciples….
But the chief priests and Pharisees had given orders that if anyone found out where Jesus was, he should report it so that they might arrest him. (John 11:53 – 54, 57)
After the official governing body (the Sanhedrin) decided to kill Jesus, he avoided public exposure until it was time for him to die.
Jesus returned to Jerusalem for the Passover Feast, where people in the crowd recognized him and in disbelief questioned what he was saying. “When he had finished speaking, Jesus left and hid himself from them” (John 12:36). He left and simply hid himself from the crowd. This was after the chief priests and Pharisees gave orders for people to report if they see him so they could arrest him.
As the time approached for him to die, “Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life” (Matt. 16:21). Jesus knew he would suffer terribly and the religious leaders would kill him. He knew his purpose in life included being crucified and paying the horrendous penalty for all sin, but he didn’t abandon his destiny by protecting himself from harm. Even when a mob came to arrest him the night Judas betrayed him, he didn’t defend himself.
Then the men stepped forward, seized Jesus and arrested him. With that, one of Jesus’ companions reached for his sword, drew it out and struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his ear.
“Put your sword back in its place,” Jesus said to him, “for all who draw the sword will die by the sword. Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels? But how then would the Scriptures be fulfilled that say it must happen in this way?” (Matt. 26:50 – 54)
As we see, Peter used a sword to defend him, but Jesus told him not to and then healed the injured man. It was time for Jesus to die and he was ready. He could have asked God for protection, but did not.
People sometimes interpret his statement, “all who draw the sword will die by the sword,” as prohibiting the use of weapons. But in another account of this incident, Jesus’ point in having Peter put away his sword was his willingness to submit to arrest and death, rather than avoiding the use of weapons (John 18:11, “Put your sword away! Shall I not drink the cup the Father has given me?”). If Jesus were a pacifist and opposed to any use of weapons, why would he instruct his disciples to have them (see Luke 22:36 – 38)? Jesus told Peter not to use his sword because (1) Jesus must be arrested and crucified, and (2) Peter was acting in the flesh rather than recognizing God’s will.
After Jesus’ arrest, the teachers of the law and the elders presented him to the high priest, looking for evidence to justify putting him to death. In response to one of their questions, he suggested they ask those who heard him teach.
When Jesus said this, one of the officials nearby struck him in the face. “Is this the way you answer the high priest?” he demanded.
“If I said something wrong,” Jesus replied, “testify as to what is wrong. But if I spoke the truth, why did you strike me?” (John 18:22 – 23).
He didn’t retaliate, but stood his ground and rebuked the man who struck him.
Then the high priest stood up and said to Jesus, “Are you not going to answer? What is this testimony that these men are bringing against you?” But Jesus remained silent.
The high priest said to him, “I charge you under oath by the living God: Tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God.”
“Yes, it is as you say,” Jesus replied. “But I say to all of you: In the future you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.”
Then the high priest tore his clothes and said, “He has spoken blasphemy! Why do we need any more witnesses? Look, now you have heard the blasphemy. What do you think?”
“He is worthy of death,” they answered. (Matt. 26:62 – 66)
Jesus didn’t defend himself when accused because he knew it was time for his crucifixion. In fact, he even made a statement he knew would incite a strong response from the spiritual leaders, almost guaranteeing they would demand his death.
The Sanhedrin decided to put him to death, but had to send him to Pilate because they didn’t have the authority to perform capital punishment. During Pilate’s interrogation, Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jews. But now my kingdom is from another place” (John 18:36). Jesus said his disciples would fight to prevent his arrest if his kingdom were of this world. By implication, it’s not wrong to fight about matters of this world.
Pilate couldn’t find a charge against Jesus worthy of execution, but the chief priests and their officials demanded he be crucified for claiming to be the Son of God. When Pilate heard this, he was even more afraid to condemn Jesus (John 19:8); first because he claimed to be a king, but then the religious leaders said he claimed to be the Son of God. Pilate looked for a reason to let him go and asked him where he came from, possibly hoping he could refer the matter to another authority. Jesus didn’t answer his question (v. 9); a direct answer might have encouraged Pilate to release him, which would abort the crucifixion.
Note that Jesus told his disciples earlier he could call on his Father, who would put legions of angels at his disposal to protect and deliver him (Matt. 26:53). This also was true later during his torture and execution, but Jesus submitted to the process because it would fulfill his purpose in coming to earth.
(End of excerpt)
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