Jesus distinguished between two kingdoms: the kingdom of God and the kingdom of Caesar or the state. Of the kingdom of God, he further distinguished two godly kingdoms: a theocratic kingdom and a spiritual one.
Once we make the same distinctions, we can understand how the church as an institution and individual Christians fit into and solve the problem of wars and the military.
For Christianity, this article is the most important.
Transition from Old to New
To analyze the New Testament properly, it is imperative to understand the Old Testament. The later sacred text grows organically out of the older one, but also transforms some main themes. This revered ancient source teaches a theocracy, merging religion and politics. The Law of Moses was thundered from on high, shaking Mt. Sinai and echoing across the Middle East and eventually around the world.
The plan was for the ancient Hebrews, the people of God, to separate themselves from surrounding kingdoms and their pagan religions, and to worship the true and living God, following carefully prescribed laws. These laws were designed to guide them towards righteousness.
Further, God permitted ancient Israel to wage war on pagan inhabitants who were living in a small and specific land called Canaan, later renamed Israel. (He did not command his people to wage wars of worldwide conquests.) The Israelites alternated between success and failure in their wars. But this bedrock principle can be learned from these admittedly severe decrees: God is not opposed, in principle, to warfare, if necessary.
However, the people were unable or unwilling to follow God’s decrees, except a remnant. So God ordained a new path of following his righteousness, the gift of the Spirit. The prophet Joel predicted, as follows:
28 I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions. 29 Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days. (Joel 2:28-29)
God expands the horizon to involve all people. The Spirit is not automatically put in everyone at birth, but anyone can receive the Spirit, if he asks God for him.
Jesus, a Jew, lived in a theocracy, though under Roman occupation, about four decades before the destruction of the Temple in A.D. 70 by the Roman general Titus, who later became the Emperor (ruled A.D. 79-81), son of the Emperor Vespasian (ruled A.D. 69-79).
The following questions from this short Bible survey are relevant to the New Testament.
Should the wars in the Old Testament be transferred forward to the ministry of Jesus and the church? If so, how? Would Jesus carry on the earthly theocratic kingdom established by God in ancient Israel? What about to secular governments? Should they wield the sword, when necessary, despite what pacifists may say?
A New Path
Jesus rose above his culture and trail-blazed a new path. In his teachings and pronouncements, he divides the kingdom of Caesar from the kingdom of God. Though the phrases “kingdom of heaven” or “kingdom of God” are used over a hundred times in the four Gospels, we look at only a sample that put the kingdom in action.
First, at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, he was tempted or tested (the Greek word can be translated either way) by Satan to take all of the kingdoms of the world. Luke 4:5-7 says:
5 The devil led him up to a high place and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. 6 And he said to him, “I will give you all their authority and splendor, for it has been given me, and I can give it to anyone I want to. 7 So if you worship me, it will be yours.” 8 Jesus answered, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve him only.’” (Luke 4:5-7; cf. Matt. 4:8-10; Deuteronomy 6:13)
God allowed Satan to lead Jesus up to a high place and showed him all the kingdoms of this world – their glory and political authority. At this time in history, “kingdom” includes material resources, backed by a strong military. However, Jesus rebuked Satan and refused the offer.
Rather, Jesus is about to raise his followers’ vision to a spiritual transformation of the world, one soul at a time, without robbing people by bloodshed or killing them. Then, following his example, his disciples went north, south, east, and west, transforming the world only by preaching a simple message and by praying.
Next, Jesus was not part of the Jerusalem religious establishment. He often went to the city to attend the festivals (e.g. John 2:13; 5:1; 7:2; 10:22; 12:12). However, he spent most of his time in Galilee, in the north. So the Jerusalem establishment sent their agents to investigate him (Matt. 15:1; Mark 3:22; 7:1). Other times crowds of people from Judea, the countryside where Jerusalem presided, and the city itself would go out to listen to him (Matt 4:25; Mark 3:8; Luke 5:17; 6:17). Each time the establishment challenged him, his riposte overcame them. The crowds were amazed.
He was beginning a new movement, maybe at first a reformation of Judaism (Matt. 10:5), but he expanded his horizons to the entire world (Matt. 28:16-20). His kingdom would not be confined to national Israel.
Nothing symbolized the Jerusalem religious establishment more clearly than the temple built by Herod who made it look beautiful. Devout Jews took pilgrimages there, and so did Jesus (John 5:1; 7:14; 12:1-12). The establishment, by order of the Torah (Exodus 30:13), implemented a temple tax on the people, which Jesus also paid, to fulfill legal obligations (Matt. 17:24-27).
However, he made a whip and cleared the temple of money-changers, conducting business transactions which he felt violated its spirit and purpose. In doing this he also fulfilled prophecy (Matt. 21:12-13; Mark 11:15-17; Luke 19:45-46). He may have done it twice, if these passages represent two different times (John 2:13-16). In any case, the main point is that this clearing out by a whip was a temporary action, designed for a specific purpose, not a permanent policy or institution.
In fact, in John 2:19, after the religious establishment challenged his authority to apply the whip and turn over the tables, he answered enigmatically. “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.” Then John clarifies the response: “But the temple he had spoken of was his body” (v. 21). So already he was spiritualizing the temple and pointing beyond the literal stones.
Another example about the temple shows that he predicted that one day soon the temple would be destroyed: “Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down” (Matt. 24:2). With this outcome, how could Jesus tell his disciples to become attached to the temple and command them to take pilgrimages to it year after year? He did not raise a militia to fight for control over it. Rather, he foresaw that his mission and church would spill over – would have to spill over – the geo-political holy land and holy city and go out to the entire world.
Clearer still in Jesus’ ministry, he says that “one greater than the temple is here” (Matt 12:6) – meaning himself. He also told a Samaritan woman that it will not matter if people worship on Mt. Gerizim in Samaria or the temple mount in Jerusalem. God seeks those who worship in Spirit and truth, and do not focus on stones and sites (John 4:19-26). He rose above geopolitics.
As we shall see in a later article in this series, the early church will remember his teaching and outlook on the temple and apply it to the church, for ultimately the body of Christ is his church, and the church is referred to as a temple (1 Corinthians 3:16; 2 Corinthians 6:16; 1 Peter 2:5), and so is our own body a temple (1 Corinthians 6:19).
Authority, Taxes, and the Kingdom of God
James and John were two of the three disciples who were the inner core around Jesus. They and Peter and Jesus spent the most time together. One day, as they were all heading toward Jerusalem where Jesus was destined to die, just as he predicted (Luke 9:22, 43-45; 12:50; 13:32-33; 18:31-34), James and John’s mother kneeled and asked him to ordain her two sons to sit on either side of Jesus, left and right, in his kingdom. She merged spiritual and moral authority with political authority. Jesus had to correct her. His father in heaven appoints who sit in the seats of prominence (Luke 20:23). Further, his kingdom is different from Caesar’s political kingdom. If God’s kingdom were enacted, it would overturn the worldly kingdom. The passage explains:
25 Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. 26 Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever wants to be first must be your slave – 28 just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matt. 20:24-28)
In Jesus’ kingdom, leaders must not act like the worldly ones who hold authority over people’s heads like Damocles’ sword. Kingdom citizens serve.
Further, Jesus makes his triumphal entry into Jerusalem (Luke 19:18-44). As noted, he had predicted his own death. Now the hostility of the Jewish leadership heats up against him. It is in this context that the teachers of the law and the chief priests keep a close watch on him to catch him in committing treason against Rome or in breaking the law – both Roman and Jewish – so they could arrest him and turn him over to “the power and authority of the governor” (Luke 20:20). Some leaders ask him whether it is lawful to pay taxes to Caesar. Apparently, they saw him as a political revolutionary who opposed Roman occupation. Would he endorse the taxation of his fellow Jews for the benefit of unclean Gentiles? He replied with famous words that are often quoted, though people may not know the exact reference and context. He speaks first in this passage.
24 “Show me a denarius. Whose portrait and inscription are on it?” 25 “Caesar’s,” they replied. He said to them, “Then give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” 26 They were unable to trap him in what he said there in public. And astonished by his answer, they became silent. (Luke 20:24-26; cf. Matt. 22:19-21; Mark 12:15-17)
The distinction between the kingdom of Caesar and the kingdom of God is clear. If Caesar asks for taxes, then keep your focus on the kingdom of God, but pay them. Incidentally, he even called a tax collector to become one of his disciples (Matt. 9:9) and befriended them and other sinners (Luke 5:29-32).
Finally, during his arrest, Jesus said to Pontius Pilate, a Roman authority:
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 says that establishing an earthly kingdom would necessarily involve fighting for it. However, Jesus was not setting up an earthly kingdom, so armed conflict was unnecessary.
Upon Jesus’ reply, Pilate exclaims that Jesus is a king. But Jesus spiritualizes the description of a king. Pilate speaks first in the following verse:
“You are a king, then!” Jesus answered: “You are right in saying I am a king. In fact, for this reason, I was born, and for this I came into the world to testify to the truth. Everyone who is on the side of the truth listens to me.” (John 18:37)
At the birth of Jesus, the wise men had called him “king of the Jews” (Matt. 2:2). In John 18:37 he says that the purpose of his birth – as a king – is to testify to the truth. That means his kingdom is heavenly and nonmaterial. He leads by the power of truth alone, not by worldly pomp and glory, followed by a mighty military.
Thus, Jesus lifts his vision, and that of his disciples and ours, to a heavenly kingdom. He separated off an earthly and theocratic kingdom – albeit established by God in ancient Israel – from a spiritual kingdom about to be established beyond the borders of Israel to the farthest parts of the globe, wherever the gospel of the kingdom is preached. He rose above his culture. In his ministry and actions he never carried a sword or raised a militia to attack opponents, for he intended only to fight spiritual beings and diseases, and to clarify the best possible image of God in kingdom theology.
If Jesus were to reestablish another religious-political theocracy in a small land, it would not have succeeded, for God ordained something new that relates to all peoples. Joel 2:28-29 prophesies, and Peter the lead Apostle applies the prophecy to the birth of the Church in Acts 2. Jesus did not reestablish the theocratic kingdom of Israel as if he were some sort of militaristic Son of David or in any other earthly way, though David was regarded as the most powerful and righteous king in Israel’s history. In Matt. 22:41-46 Jesus corrects the popular belief about the Son of David, saying that he is the Lord of David.
An Armed Militia?
In addition, Jesus had strong motives to establish a militia or secret society in order to protect himself or eliminate his enemies and critics or at least threaten them if they refused his message. Jerusalem and Israel could be violent.
For example, in Acts 5:33-37, the apostles are on trial before the Sanhedrin, not too long after the crucifixion. Gamaliel recounts two episodes about bandits or rebels. One was Theudas, who gathered about 400 men to lead a rebellion, but nothing came of it. The other was Judas the Galilean, who led a band in revolt, but he was killed, and his followers were scattered. According to Acts 21:38, an Egyptian started a revolt a while back and led four thousand terrorists or assassins (sicarii or dagger-men). Roman soldiers killed hundreds of them, and their movement came to nothing. In Acts 23:12-23:35, Paul was in Jerusalem under arrest, and some Jews formed a conspiracy to assassinate him.
The final example illustrating the motive Jesus had to establish a militia or secret society says that in one case Herod intended to kill Jesus, but Jesus said it was not his time to die because he was outside Jerusalem (Luke 13:31-33). This is a little irony, for how could the holy city (Matt. 27:53) kill a holy man? Nonetheless, Jerusalem became famous for doing exactly that – “for surely no prophet can die outside Jerusalem!” Jesus said. (Luke 13:33).
So it is not totally out of the question, culturally and hypothetically speaking, that Jesus could have formed his own society – secret or open – of thugs or assassins. But he chose a higher path.
Instead of using a militia of disciples, he rose above his culture and ushered in the new kingdom of God and told his disciples to do the same.
For instance, one of his disciples was called Simon the zealot (Luke 6:15). He probably got this nickname before he joined the new Jesus movement, but the name worked nicely to distinguish him from Simon Peter. The nickname “zealot” does not mean he was part of the revolutionary political party called the Zealots, for they appear after the outbreak of the Jewish revolt against Rome in A.D. 66. Rather, the nickname most likely refers to those who were zealous for the law (cf. Acts 21:20; 22:3, 19; 4 Maccabees 18:12). These religious zealots pushed all their energetic zeal to punish with violence any Jew who flouted Jewish law.
But Jesus rejected this kind of violent punishment in the name of holiness and the law. He would teach Simon the zealot a new way.
Still another example of his teaching the disciples to rise above their culture: In Luke 9:52-56, Jesus and his disciples were on their way to Jerusalem and went through Samaria. Normally Jews went around the area in their pilgrimage to the capital because the Samaritans were considered half-breeds of ancient Assyrians and Israelites many centuries before, and their religion was irregular. He told the disciples to go on ahead and get things ready. But the Samaritans rejected them because they were on their way to Jerusalem.
James and John, two brothers and part of Jesus’ inner core, wanted to call down fire from heaven on Samaritans, reminiscent of Elijah who called down fire on the prophets of Baal (1 Kings 18:38), to retaliate. Jesus rebuked the two men. He intended to go on a new path, a higher way.
Finally, in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus told his disciples:
43 You have heard that it was said, “Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” 44 But I tell you: Love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you 45 that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. … (Matt. 5:43-45)
These verses overturn the popular idea everywhere that we should hate our enemy. Rather, we should pray for those who persecute us, not retaliate or attack them proportionately. This is the kingdom message.
Spiritual Warfare Only
If calling down fire from heaven, forming small and secret militias, hating one’s enemy, and exercising religious violence was not the way of the kingdom, then what was? How does it work itself out down here on earth?
Those questions bring us to the ministry and teaching of Jesus. As noted, he waged only spiritual warfare, not a military one.
Three examples of his spiritual warfare represent other passages in the Gospels.
First, one of the striking features of the Gospels is the presence of demonic beings that attack hapless people. The Gospels take them seriously, and so does Jesus (and so should we). He waged spiritual warfare against demons, wherever he went. After the great test (Matt. 4:1-11; Luke 4:1-13), many passages describe his confrontation with them (Matt. 12:28 and 43; Mark 1:23-26, 5:2, 7:25, 9:25-26; Luke 4:33, 8:29 and 55, 9:42, 11:24, and 13:11).
Next, he waged spiritual warfare against sickness. This passage, representing other summaries, encapsulates in a few words the healing ministry of Jesus in Israel:
30 Great crowds came to him, bringing the lame, the blind, the crippled, the mute and many others, and laid them at his feet; and he healed them. 31 The people were amazed when they saw the mute speaking, the crippled made well, the lame walking and the blind seeing. And they praised the God of Israel. (Matt. 15:30-31)
Finally, he waged spiritual warfare against false and incomplete ideas by teaching true and full ones. In the Sermon on the Mount he explains what the kingdom of God really is. It is the “new thing” prophesied by Isaiah (42:9, 43:19, and 48:6). After he finished the long discourse, the people respond thus:
28 When Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed at his teaching, 29 because he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law. (Matt. 7:28-29; cf. 13:54 and 22:33)
These and many other passages in the Gospels demonstrate that Jesus is waging spiritual warfare, not a military one. He is about to call his church to do the same. He raises its vision higher than conquering earthly kingdoms and regions.
However, the God of the Old Testament and the New Testament are not different. The same God who purified the small and specific land of Canaan through Joshua and his successors by military warfare is now purifying the whole world through Jesus (his Hebrew name is Joshua) and his disciples by spiritual warfare, that is, only by preaching the gospel and only by praying, not by hitting the stubborn with swords.
There is one anecdote in the early church that may illustrate that the spiritual kingdom – as opposed to an earthly one – was taking hold in the church’s teaching. Jesus had (half) brothers (Matt. 12:46), one of whom was named Jude (Jude 1). Jude’s grandchildren were hauled before the emperor Domitian (ruled A.D. 81-96), and he drilled them with questions about the kingdom of Jesus. He asked them if they were descended from King David, and they said yes, but they were farmers who toiled the land. They showed him their calluses as signs of hard work with their hands.
When asked about Christ and His kingdom – what it was like, and where and when it shall appear – they explained that it was not of this world or anywhere on earth but angelic and in heaven and would be established at the end of the world … On hearing this, Domitian found no fault with them, but despising them as beneath his notice let them go free and issued orders terminating the persecution of the Church.
This story may not be true, but merely a pious fiction. However, even if it were a fiction, it does show that the teaching that kingdom of God was spiritual, not earthly, had taken root in the early church – Jesus’ “kingdom was not of this world,” but “from another place” (John 18:36).
Understanding the separate kingdoms of God and Caesar (the state) and the fact that Jesus never set out to rebuild the theocratic kingdom of Israel (Acts 1:6-7) is essential for grasping all of the verses in the New Testament about the sword. If we merge the two realms, we will witness religious atrocities that the church committed sometimes (not always) in its history; we will see the church raise an army or militia to attack sinners and nonconformists, as the militaristic church defines them.
Jesus had a strong motive to protect himself from persecution. He could have formed a small, secret society to threaten or assassinate some opponents. Instead, he followed a new way. Such matters of the sword and punishment and retaliation would be placed in the hands of the state. In contrast, the message of Jesus wisely teaches the separation of the state and the church.
Thus, the mission of the church is to save souls, teach believers, and help the needy in practical ways. That is the essence of the kingdom message that Jesus preached and the early church took to heart. He set the institutional genetic code in his movement – away from wars and towards peace.
Equally important and implied in this article is that the secular state may not declare war in the name of God’s kingdom or the church. If the state declares war or imposes peace by law enforcement, it must do so in its own name using God-given reason and human rights. Members of the kingdom of God can counsel the state and police officials, but they are not obligated to listen. They can go their own way. The separation of the kingdom of God and the kingdom of Caesar is therefore of utmost importance.