Was Jesus a Pacifist?


It would be difficult to overstate the importance of the Gospels. In the pages of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John we find the matchless words and life of the Lord Jesus. No literature, ancient or modern, can ever excel the beauty and depth of the words of Jesus, who spoke as no other man has ever spoken. The Gospels will be forever loved and enjoyed by God’s people. In their pages we see Jesus in all the dignity of His perfect humanity and the glory of His work of salvation.

As we approach the Gospel material, we must emphasize the necessity of not reading into the Bible ideas and issues which are uniquely related to the twentieth century. Instead, the only valid hermeneutical assumption we can make is that Jesus and the apostles will deal primarily with the issues and questions of their first-century audience. We should not expect them to deal with such things as nuclear weapons because such things did not exist in their day.

This means we cannot claim direct Gospel support for issues which could not have been of any interest in the first century, because they did not yet exist. We can easily fall into the trap of getting more out of the Bible than what is really there.

An honest reading of the Gospels reveals that neither Jesus nor His apostles ever deal directly with such modern abstract issues as the morality of war, nuclear weapons, unilateral disarmament, foreign and domestic policy, industrial pollution or urban blight. Nowhere do they directly answer such questions as:

“What is our responsibility in times of war?”

“Is it proper for a nation to go to war?”

“Should the police carry weapons?”

Once this point is understood, it becomes obvious that the only way for us to arrive at answers to some of these issues and questions is to deduce by logical inference what Jesus might have said if He had been asked about such things.

We readily admit that logical deductions can be tricky. We must be very careful not to put our words into the mouth of the Lord Jesus. All we can do is arrive at His most probable answers. We must base our research on logical inferences drawn from His sermons and the way He dealt with problems in His own day.

Once we understand that the best we can come up with is the most probable answer drawn from inference, we must be careful to avoid arguing in a circle. Many stumble into this typical violation of logic quite sincerely, and quite blindly.

For example, what if we approached the Gospels with the assumption that we already knew that Jesus was a pacifist before even picking up the Bible to see what He said? We would naturally give a biased interpretation of His words in such passages as the Sermon on the Mount.

Once we had done this, we could then argue that Jesus was a pacifist on the basis of His words. Proving in our conclusion what we had already assumed in our premise, we would end up arguing in a circle.

This equally applies to someone who uses circular reasoning to prove that Jesus was in favor of war. If the form of the argument is invalid, it is invalid no matter which position is using it.

Since we can only infer what Jesus might have said about such things as national wars, we must accept the answer which has the most evidence. We cannot make a “leap of faith” as some do and arbitrarily assume that our position is the biblical one simply because we wish it to be so.

The Most Probable Answer

At no point in Jesus’ ministry did He ever tell Israel or Rome that governments should disarm. He never condemned the just use of force as taught in the Scriptures, nor did He ever condemn the police for using force to punish criminals. Despite the clarity of the Old Testament in its divine approval of the use of force, Jesus never once preached against a nation having an army or the state maintaining a police force.

Logically, this can lead us to only one possible inference. Jesus’ silence meant that He approved of and accepted the Old Testament precedent of the valid use of force. Whenever we study the Scriptures, a biblical and historical precedent stands until directly removed by divine revelation.

The following points from the Gospels further strengthen this logical inference:

1.  Jesus spoke with obvious approval of a king who waged a just war to punish a wicked people by putting them to death (Matt. 21:33-41). While Jesus was not discussing war per se, His use of a just-war model for this parable is possible only if Jesus accepted the Old Testament concept of the just use of force.

2.  When dealing with Roman or Jewish soldiers, Jesus never told them to leave the military or that it was morally wrong to be soldiers (Matt. 8:5-13; Luke 6:15). This lends further support to the inference that Jesus accepted the scriptural position of the valid use of force. If He were a pacifist and opposed in principle any violence by anyone, He would not have failed to rebuke those who were in the military. Jesus was not known for overlooking sin in the lives of those who sat under His teaching. He denounced sin wherever and in whomever He saw it.

3.  In Matt. 24:6, 7, Jesus clearly stated that wars would remain part of human experience until the end of the age. If He were a pacifist, then this would have been a perfect opportunity to condemn all wars. Jesus did not do so in this passage. This underscores the fact that although Jesus referred to the use of force in war or self-defense on many occasions, not once did He condemn such things.

4.  Since the people of God had been involved in political and military life throughout history (Abraham, Joshua and Daniel, for example), the fact that Jesus never once told His disciples that they could no longer be involved in those spheres of life is significant.

5.  One searches in vain for a secular/sacred dichotomy in Jesus’ teaching. To Him all of life was sacred. His disciples were involved in every walk of life. Jesus did not condemn governmental or military careers as being “secular” or sinful.

Once we understand that Jesus Christ is Lord of all life and all life has been sanctified by His dominion, the secular/sacred dichotomy is destroyed. There is no occupation or area in life which a child of God may not be involved in as long as it is not in violation of God’s moral law as given in Scripture.

6.  Jesus said in John 18:36 that if His church were an earthly kingdom, it would be perfectly proper for His disciples to take up weapons and fight for Him.

While Jesus is clearly, in this passage, forbidding the church as an institution to use physical force in its discipline or defense, He clearly states here that an earthly kingdom can and should fight when necessary.

7.  In His parables, Jesus often pictured rulers using valid force to punish wrongdoers (Matt. 18:23-35; 21:38-41; 22:13, etc.). While this is compatible with the teaching of the Old Testament on the just use of force, Jesus would never have given such parables if He were a pacifist. This logically implies that Jesus carried on the teaching of the Old Testament.

8.  When the Jews brought Jesus to Pilate, they claimed that Jesus was trying to overthrow the Roman government (Luke 23:1-5). While it is clear that the Jews were wrong in saying Jesus had come to start a violent revolution, it is equally clear that such an accusation could never have been used against Jesus if He had been publicly preaching pacifism.

9.  At the beginning and the end of His ministry, Jesus used just force to cleanse the temple (Matt. 21:12; John 2:15). His whip of cords and the Greek words used to describe His driving out the money-changers (drove, poured out, overthrew) cannot be legitimately interpreted to mean anything else than a forcible ejection of the money-changers. The only logical inference possible is that Jesus condoned the just use of force.

When the Apostle John described this episode in Jesus’ life, he recorded that the disciples appealed to an Old Testament passage as a justification of Christ’s use of force (John 2:17). This demonstrates beyond all doubt that the disciples were not pacifists.

10.  Throughout His ministry, Jesus spoke of His using force on the Day of Judgment to punish rebellious sinners (Matt. 25:41, 46). If the sinless Son of God is going to use force to destroy His enemies, then it is not possible to view the use of force as being intrinsically wrong or immoral. We must therefore conclude that force is right in some situations.

11.  When Jesus’ enemies tried to capture Him, He demonstrated that no one could take His life away from Him (John 10:17, 18). Jesus exercised divine force and knocked down His attackers (John 18:1-6). Since the Son of God himself exercised force in self-defense, then the use of force in self-defense should be viewed as good.

12.  Jesus told His disciples to buy weapons to arm themselves (Luke 22:36-38). While this is hardly consistent with a pacifist picture of Jesus, it does strengthen the inference that Jesus approved of the Old Testament principle of the use of weapons in self-defense. We cannot imagine a pacifist arming his disciples with weapons.

13.  After Peter had cut off Malchus’ ear, Jesus did not tell Peter to throw away his sword but to put it back in its sheath. Evidently there would be other occasions where it could be rightfully used (John 18:11).

God’s plan of salvation called for Christ to die. The disciples would have hindered God’s plan if they had risen up to fight for Christ and delivered Him from the Jews. When force is exercised to hinder God’s plan or revelation, it is unjustified violence. Such illegitimate violence will only lead to further violence (Matt. 26:52).

14.  Later during one of His trials, Jesus said He could call upon an entire army of angels to fight for Him if He wished to be delivered from death (Matt. 26:53).

Obviously, Jesus felt that the use of such force in certain circumstances would be perfectly just. But Christ had come to fulfill the Old Testament prophecies concerning His death (Matt. 26:54). This explains why Jesus did not call upon His disciples or the angels of God to fight for Him. It was not because He was a pacifist, but because He had come to die for our sins.

In the light of these fourteen points, we can logically conclude that the most probable position of Jesus according to the Gospel data is that He supported the scriptural use of force in personal or civil defense. From the beginning to the end of His ministry, Jesus spoke with approval of the just use of force. At no time did He condemn it.

The Sermon on the Mount

Of all the sermons which the Son of God preached to the multitudes, the Sermon on the Mount has always been the favorite of God’s people. Even non-Christian scholars acknowledge the amazing depth, clarity, and practicality of this sermon. Its ethical force lives on in the hearts of people all over the world.

In order for us to understand this passage of Scripture in all of its depth and beauty, we must be careful to observe the principle of context. Christ is contrasting His view of the inner spirituality of the law of God to the externalized legalistic interpretation of the law that had arisen in rabbinic Judaism.

This is important to point out because a superficial reading of the sermon might lead some to think that Christ was attacking the Old Testament Scriptures. Indeed, some commentators interpret the Sermon on the Mount as the place where Jesus contrasted His New Testament ethic of love with the Old Testament ethic of hate. They claim Jesus directly rejected the Old Testament. Marcion felt this way, too. Marcionism was one of the ancient heresies condemned by the early church. It pitted the New Testament against the Old Testament.

Marcion taught that the Old Testament was worthless so far as a Christian was concerned.1

The early Christians condemned Marcion’s position on the Old Testament for several reasons.

1.  Christ began this sermon by assuring His audience that He had not come to destroy the Old Testament (Matt. 5:17). Indeed, this would have been impossible because the smallest stroke in the law must be fulfilled (v. 18). Furthermore, anyone who attacks the Old Testament, misinterprets its commands or encourages people to break its laws, will be least in the kingdom of heaven (v. 19).

With Christ’s disclaimer at the beginning of His sermon, it is impossible to interpret His subsequent words as an attack on the Old Testament Scriptures.

2.  In Matt. 5:20, Jesus zeroes in on what He is going to deal with in His sermon when He refers to “the righteousness of the Pharisees.” He refers to the traditions and teachings of rabbinic Judaism that had arisen during the intertestamental period. The Mishna, Midrash and Talmuds have preserved some of these traditions. (The intertestamental period is the time gap between the last book in the Old Testament and Jesus’ birth, about 400 years.)

The Pharisees had become legalistic in their devotion to the traditional interpretation of the law as given by their fathers. They had voided the meaning of God’s law through their man-made traditions. Thus Jesus and the Pharisees frequently fought over whether we should follow tradition or Scripture (see Mark 7:1-13 as an example).

3.  Since Jesus was refuting the rabbinic interpretation of the law and not the law itself, He introduced His points by saying, “You have heard that it was said to people long ago … but I tell you …” (Matt. 5:21, 27, 33).

If He had been quoting Scripture, then He would have used His usual formula: “It is written…” He was not rejecting the Old Testament, but the warped and twisted interpretation  the Pharisees used when they explained it.

4. A final proof that Jesus was dealing with rabbinic law is found in verse 21 where He said, “Anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.” This statement is not a quote from the Old Testament but from some rabbinical writing. Most modern commentators point this out clearly.2

Now that we have properly identified the context of the sermon, we can begin to make several observations on its content.

First, nowhere in this sermon does Jesus bring up the subject of the state or whether or not governments can protect their citizens with armed forces. He does not mention the subject of war at any point.

This is a vital point because the Sermon on the Mount has been incorrectly used at times to condemn all warfare. Jesus never brought up such subjects. So any claims that the Sermon on the Mount calls for national or international pacifism must be rejected as exegetically erroneous.

Second, Jesus is clearly discussing personal ethics. He is describing vital inner qualities of piety and the ways in which we should respond to our neighbors when they become sources of irritation.3

That is why Jesus could talk about loving one’s neighbor, turning the other cheek and giving ones’ coat to someone. At no point in the passage does Jesus discuss national or international ethics.

This last point is very important because it would be a basic logical error to assume that personal ethics can be applied to national or international situations without modification. It is rather simplistic to assume that the rules in Matthew 5 governing personal behavior during times of peace must be followed by nations in times of peace or war.

Third, while Jesus reestablishes the Old Testament principle that individuals should not seek personal vengeance (Lev. 19:18, Matt. 5:38-42), this can hardly be applied to the church or to the state. Both are under divine obligation to punish offenders.

The church has a moral obligation to punish an offending member even to the point of excommunication (Matt. 18:17; 1 Cor. 5:4, 5).

If personal ethics must apply to the church, then the church’s use of moral, spiritual and ecclesiastical force in disciplining its members must be viewed as wrong. But if the church’s use of spiritual force in disciplining its membership is correct, then the church has a unique set of rules to guide its behavior, not the personal ethics of Matthew 5.

The state has a moral obligation to punish offenders even to the point of death (Rom. 13:1-4). While it is wrong for individuals to take the law in their hands and punish people out of personal vengeance, the Scriptures clearly teach that the state is to use the sword to punish evildoers and to protect the good. The state cannot function on the basis of personal ethics if it is to fulfill its God-given task.

Fourth, Jesus was not discussing what to do if one’s life is threatened or what to do if the life of a spouse or child is threatened. We are to avoid overreacting or exploding in anger when we receive personal insults. Don’t be so quick to respond in like manner when evil is done to you. Don’t be short-tempered but be patient and kind.

For example, in Matt. 5:39, Jesus specifically referred to the right cheek as being slapped instead of the left cheek because the slap of the right cheek by the back of the left hand was a personal insult and not an act of violence done in the context of war. Slapping the right cheek was not a life-threatening attack. It was a personal insult, like spitting in someone’s face.4

Fifth, let us take a close look at some of Jesus’ words which some people have mistakenly interpreted as teaching pacifism.

“Blessed are the meek” (v. 5). We must not assume that meekness means weakness. This is clear from the simple observation that Moses was described as “very meek, more than any other man on the face of the earth” (Num. 12:3).

Since Moses was a man of strong, aggressive leadership and was involved in warfare, being “meek” has nothing to do with being passive toward evil or the enemies of God. The word itself carries the connotation of a quiet strength and resolution to overcome evil.

“Blessed are the peacemakers” (v 9). The Greek word “peacemaker” was one of Caesar’s titles.5 He was called “the peacemaker” because he won and maintained peace by the use of force. The word does not mean “peaceable” or “pacifistic” or “peace at any price.” The word meant “peace through strength.” As such, it named the head of the Roman army without contradiction.

“Do not resist him that is evil” (v. 39). When Jesus gives us the general principle that we should not be quick in returning evil for evil, His subject is dealing with your neighbor. We should personally be willing to go the second mile in enduring personal insults in order to win our neighbors to Christ.

The idea that Jesus is here saying that no resistance of any kind is to be made against evil is absurd. Even extreme pacifists resist evil by peace demonstrations, hunger strikes, not paying taxes, denying the military draft. Yet nonviolent and passive resistance are still resistance.

Equally absurd is the idea that resistance against any kind of evil whatever is condemned by Jesus. The New Testament tells us to “resist the devil” (1 Pet. 5:9; James 4:7). Didn’t Jesus resist the Pharisees (Matt. 23)? Aren’t all Christians called upon to fight for the faith (Jude 3)? Are we not called upon to resist heretics (1 Tim. 1:3-11; Titus 1:9-11)? Certain kinds of evil should be endured while other kinds of evil must be resisted.


Our survey of the Gospels has revealed that Jesus supported the scriptural use of force for personal or national defense.

There is no evidence in the Gospel material that Jesus taught pacifism or nonresistance. On the other hand, Jesus’ use of the just-war model as the basis for multiple parables and as the pattern for the Judgment Day revealed that He was not in any way uncomfortable with Old Testament teaching in this regard.

For Review and Discussion

1.   Did Jesus ever condemn the Old Testament’s approval of the use of force?

2.   How can we discover what Jesus might have said if He had been asked about Christians being involved in the military? Did He tell soldiers to desert their post?

3.   Would Jesus use the just-war model as the basis of some of His parables if He and His hearers were pacifists? Would a modern pacifist bring up war and capital punishment without registering some kind of protest? Did Jesus ever register such protests when He brought up such things?

4.   Did Jesus use force in cleansing the Temple, in escaping His enemies, or at His arrest?

5.   Was Jesus rejecting the Old Testament in His “Sermon on the Mount”? Was He dealing with personal ethics or international justice? Can personal ethics be applied to the church and the state, or do they follow special rules?

This is an excerpt of When is it Right to Fight? by Robert Morey