On Self Defense — A Study in Context

So then he (Jesus) told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead, 15and for your sake I am glad I was not there…

John 11:14-15

It has been said that if you have the right heart, (or really wrong heart) you can twist the Bible and make it say anything you want. For example, taken on its own the verse and a half cited above is confusing and incomplete.

What? What in the world has Lazarus have to do with self defense? And why is Jesus glad that he is dead? That seems like a strange thing to be glad about. Was Lazarus a bad guy? Did he steal from or owe the disciples money or something?

Lazarus was none of those things. In fact, he was a close friend of Jesus’, a cool thing to be, and he and his sisters, Mary and Martha often hosted Jesus while He visited Jerusalem at their home in Bethany. What’s more, Jesus was planning on resurrecting Lazarus from the dead within a short time of making this statement. Jesus made the statement because He planned to show the disciples who followed Him the true extent of His power at Lazarus’ tomb and it would be good for their faith in Him that this took place.

But you can’t tell that just by the verse alone. Why? Because I cherry picked the verse and removed it from its context and from the overall clear messages of the Bible and repeated it without explanation. If I add in my own agenda, I can then get the verses to say whatever I want. “The Bible says Jesus hated Lazarus, we should therefore hate those who have two sisters…..” It is silly yet sad because it happens all the time.  Ever wonder why there are a million and a half explanations of some of the simple truths contained in Bible? Or why cults that clearly contradict the Bible often flourish, this is often the reason. Context may not be King as the saying asserts, only Jesus is King but with issues such as self defense it is vitally important that we look at the Bible as a whole and the context of the verses that deal with the issue before we come to a personal conclusion.

It is important to remember starting out that God never changes. He is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. So when we read about the great warriors of the Old Testament, David and Joshua and Gideon and how time and time again God intervenes to destroy armies that are coming against His people directly and through these men of battle, we have to remember that our God is still that God who empowered these men. Samson only killed Philistines with an donkey’s jawbone because the Spirit of the Lord came upon Him and filled him with the strength to do so. God called David a man after His own heart. David was a king and general who is applauded for killing thousands of Israel’s enemies.  It is believed that the Captain of the Lord’s Army in the Book of Joshua is Jesus appearing in the Old Testament who gives Joshua the plan to destroy Jericho.  He is the ultimate general!

In case you are saying, that was the Old Testament and that was Israel, both good points, God is not like that anymore!

Take a gander at the Book of Revelation and the description of Jesus when He comes back as the Rider on the White Horse, faithful and true. It says in Revelation 19 that with justice, Jesus wages war and He leads the armies of Heaven to destroy His enemies. Jesus Himself talked about how He could have called down a legion of angels to destroy his opponents on His first coming but it wasn’t time for that yet. Upon His second coming He will be the Conquering King, not the Suffering Servant – both are great btw.

So from the general context of the Bible it can be clearly seen that Jesus does not oppose warriors or generals, men and women who fight as part of armies. Paul often used military terms in his letter — Armor of God anyone. Generally, when Jesus or the disciple interact with Roman soldiers — Centurions are Roman officers — they do not tell them to leave the army and repent of their profession.  Soldiers appear to be a-ok with God.  Policemen would likely fall into this category as well.

God is also very concerned with justice and His people should be as well. The civil law of Israel provided protection of the weak by the “state”.  The Bible required the death of those who spilled innocent blood and outlawed such things as assault, murder and rape.  In the case of murder, a Kinsman Avenger was required to track down the culprit and kill them.  This picture is the flip side of the Kinsman Redeemer of the Book of Ruth. Haman from the Book of Esther was hung high from the same gallows he planned to hang God’s people from. Gideon was just a regular dude when God told Him to take up arms and fight off the people who were stealing the people’s food and livestock.  David was a shepherd boy.  These are just regular folks who take up arms in order to keep the peace and protect the people.

Jesus also at times strongly resisted evil during His first coming — fashioning a whip and overturning tables is quite forceful. He did not call down the angels to take everyone out not because He did not have that power or He was philosophically opposed to doing so — it just was not time to do so.

Jesus also told His disciples in Luke 22:36

He said to 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.”

Jesus appears to be quite literal in what He is directing them to do here. If you recall earlier in the Gospels, Jesus told them to take nothing, not even a purse and go out and preach. Marked difference, right? Well, He was to be crucified shortly when He talked about the sword — things would be very different thereafter.

Based upon such things as the 10 Commandments, Thou Shall Not Murder and our general marching orders as followers of Jesus, it is very clear that we should never offensively harm someone or seek to kill people. Jesus covers this when staying Peter’s hand in the Garden of Gethsemane — living by the sword is bad but context is important there as well.  Peter is trying to stop Jesus’ crucifixion — another “get behind me Satan” moment for Peter.

We are always there to make disciples of all nations, not martyrs. But as Proverbs 31:9 says there are times to:

Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy.

That said, there are verses that clearly apply to the issue of self defense that should challenge us and do provide a basis for a life of non-violence if that is how God leads a person.  God tells us that we should be convinced and then do everything, including in this case non-violence, to the Lord’s glory.

In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus says as follows:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I tell you not to resist an evil person. But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. If anyone wants to sue you and take away your tunic, let him have your cloak also. And whoever compels you to go one mile, go with him two. Give to him who asks you, and from him who wants to borrow from you do not turn away.”

Context – Jesus is quoting Exodus 21 where the Nation was charged with meting out justice for crimes that were committed. The general principal was an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. This principal was put in place to restrain the punishment given out for crimes to what was appropriate — the civil authorities should not go power mad and kill everyone for insulting them — it had to be measured. Only an eye for a lost eye, not death for a lost eye.

At the time of Jesus, the culture particularly the Pharisees and religious leaders had taken this precept, expanded it, flipped it on its head and adopted it to their lives. So if someone insulted a Pharisee, a “slap in the face” they taught that the Law demanded that you get vengeance in exactly the same manner — if not more. Jesus is not making an overarching statement about self defense or righteous warfare — as a Bible commentator states — “Jesus is here saying that the true Christian has learned to resent no insult and to seek retaliation for no slight” — in other words act much like our King when He was dealing with the Pharisees.  Don’t call down fire on a Samaritan village that rejects the Gospel as James and John, the Sons of Thunder wanted to but move on and leave them for God to take care of.

So what about those who are lead to take Jesus’ statement further and adopt a life of strict non-violent resistance? Is it unscriptural? Based upon Jesus’ death, certainly not. If we are called by God to lay down in front of an oncoming attack, then that is exactly what we should do and let God handle getting justice for us. I am firmly convinced that God has done that in the past and is still doing that where it serves His glory — His ways are just higher than ours.

But given the entirety of God’s Word, I believe that you simply cannot say that this is the only possible response.  There is no greater love than this, that a man would lay down his life for his friend.

Violence of any kind should always be the Christian’s very last resort – you cannot make a disciple of a dead person. But Jesus describes Himself as the Good Shepherd. Shepherds were tough and brave. They fought and where necessary died for the sheep they were given to care for.

As Christians. little christs, we should strive to be just like Jesus — willing warriors, willing servants – and listen to His direction when either role is required.

Similar Posts

8 thoughts on “On Self Defense — A Study in Context
  1. Good post on a complicated topic. As a follower of Jesus Christ who carries a pistol most of the time, I have had reason to consider this question extensively. In my case, most of my self defense training has come from another Christian, and it has been helpful for me in coming to grips with what my response and preparedness should be. Here’s how I see it:

    More important than the weapon I carry, the most important component to my ability to defend myself and others is developing the skill of situational awareness. The goal is to avoid whenever possible placing myself in a position where deadly force becomes the only option. Related to that, as a CCP holder I need to never allow pride or hurt feelings to be the reason a confrontation escalates. I need to be pretty much impervious to insult, willing to walk away and swallow my pride, while at the same time prepared and capable to act quickly to overwhelm an attacker with effective violence when there is no other option for survival. PW

    1. Thanks PW – yeah, if that is how God leads you than I believe that it is justified. I believe that others can come to a different conclusion and that is ok as well. As long as we can get along as God’s family over the issue.

  2. I’d be interested in your opinion regarding theonomy / Christian reconstructionism. I like their idea of following God’s Word for everything in life (education, business, government, etc.) but like you said above, context is important. From my studies, it is my understanding that they while theonomists believe the ceremonial laws have been done away with, they want to follow the civil laws (and their specific punishments!) given to Israel to the letter. (When pressed I sometimes find it difficult to separate the laws into neat categories of ceremonial, civil, and moral as they are listed together often within the same verse or portion of Scripture!) As one grafted into the vine, I believe that God doesn’t change but how He deals with different people (the church, the nation of Israel, etc.) may change. The difficulty for me at times has been to determine what a principle (unchanging) is versus what may change due to culture, etc. I guess that’s why the soft voice of the Holy Spirit is worth listening to as He speaks to us as individuals.

    1. Hi LL — I don’t agree with theonomy/christian reconstruction. I believe that we can learn from God’s interaction with the Nation of Israel, but we are not Israel and no country in the World other than Israel has ever been intended to be Israel. The civil law of Israel was for them, for the time period until the coming of the Messiah so to try to recreate it after the Messiah in a completely different country make little sense to me.

      It also contradicts the shift that occurred with Jesus from God dealing with people through their nation of Israel, to God dealing with each of us individually through our Savior Jesus — the perfect High Priest. We are now citizens of that Kingdom and again recreating Israel does not seem to make sense.

      Even some of the civil laws were put in place to foreshadow the coming of the Messiah, cities of refuge, Kinsman Redeemer come to mind.

      I always come back to the question of the disciples to Jesus on questions like this — they being Jews steeped in the traditions of the Nation where working and doing equaled Godliness ask Jesus what are the works (Plural) of God that we should do to show that we are awesome — ok I added the last part — Jesus answered: John 6:29

      Jesus answered and said unto them, This is the work of God, that ye believe on him whom he hath sent.

      No recreating the Mosaic law there. Sorry, you and I already agree so…:)

      But most of the questions can be answered by judging the practice or claim against Jesus, what He said and did and what He did not say or did not do and then the early church as set forth in the Bible, what the books said they did or did not do or what the writers of the letters say to do or not do.

      1. Thanks for responding! Okay, since I believe we’re on the same page and as a fellow homeschooler, I’d like to think “out loud” with you about some things with which I’ve wrestled.

        Theonomists were one of the driving forces behind the homeschool movement early on and for their help in “forging the way,” I am thankful. One of their reasons for such dedication to the homeschooling movement is that they see the government’s role as primarily a negative force (military, police enforcing laws, etc.) protecting people from evil and so forth while the role of education should have been left to the family and the church (for orphans, families who couldn’t provide an education, etc. as a “welfare” of sorts). Some say that the Bible forbids the government being involved in education as does the Constitution (at least at the Federal level, anyway). (But, I wonder, wasn’t Hebraic education woven into the Jewish government?) I believe that the argument is that the Constitution said we were to provide for the common defense and promote (not provide for) the general welfare (which may include education). When the Northwest Ordinance was passed and land for local schools was given to communities was this only a promotion of the general welfare or was this an overreach? Come to think of it…should we currently use publicly-funded libraries, 4-H programs, state universities, etc., based upon this line of thinking?

        Many theonomists believe that not only should Christians not send their kids to public schools based upon this ideal, but that Christian teachers should not teach in them. I, for one, would probably be fired immediately for saying something too “Christian,” but I guess I have room for fellow believers who are gentle as doves but wise as serpents and know when to speak up and when to remain quiet . . . kind of like underground missionaries.

        I come from a long line of public school teachers. Three of my grandmothers taught in one room schoolhouses and a couple of generations after also taught in the system. I also come from a long line of police officers. I do see how the positive vs. negative role plays out and wonder if the difficult funding issues facing police agencies would be different if tax monies were “freed” up.

        This is where, for me, I’m wondering if this is an all-time principle that should be followed. While I know that some governments would disagree, I believe that most parents would say that ultimately, they are responsible (or should be responsible) for the education of their children. The disagreement comes in where parents draw the line–overseeing their child’s education carefully at a public school, delegating the responsibility to a private school, or directly teaching their children through homeschooling.

        Back in the one-room schoolhouse days and even in my parents’ youth, the classrooms were quite “religious,” yet we’ve seen how government’s role has hurt rather than helped as education has evolved through the years. I know that nowadays (even laying aside the argument whether or not government ever should have been involved), in many districts, parents would be hard-pressed even in believing that God would want their children sitting under such socialistic and humanistic indoctrination (even as “missionaries” to their fellow schoolmates!).

        Was this a slippery slope? (Really, anything could become a slippery slope…the Pharisees could have claimed much of Jesus’ teaching as leading to a slippery slope!) Should public school ever have been an option, in your opinion? Should public tax monies ever have been used for education even at the strictest local of levels?

        I guess I can understand how those early Catholics felt “disenfranchised” as they were reading out of the primers written from a Calvinist / Reformed point of view, attacking the Pope and his theology in the schoolhouse. The Catholics were the ones who fought for “non-sectarian” education, and while I am not Catholic, I guess if I had been in their shoes, reading anti-Catholic sentiments in the primers, I can understand their concerns. Yet, education CANNOT be neutral whether from a religious perspective or from a governmental perspective. Had the Muslim Somalis which now reside in my childhood neighborhood been around in the schooldays of our nation’s past, when children were taught from the Bible, what would have been the Christian thing to do? Compulsory education? Let them form their own schools? I wonder.

        Any thoughts?

  3. H i LL – thanks for the comments re Homeschool. I was not familiar with the connection with Theonomy and homeschool.

    It can be difficult to answer a particular viewpoint on a subject sometimes because we look at things completely differently. The Christian reconstruction viewpoint, I believe goes hand in hand with dominionism – the belief that we are charged with making the World the world a certain way in preparation for Christ’s return. On earth as it is in heaven.

    I don’t believe that this is what the Bible sets out for believers and for history.

    The Bible sets out that we are strangers and sojourners in this land, citizens of heaven whose first and foremost goal is to be set apart from the world – holy – and to make disciples of all nations. It doesn’t matter what land we are in, our important connection is with the church and not with the governmental system. As we hurtle towards the End Times, or the very end times, the Bible also sets out things are going to get worse in the world and not better and we should not be surprised by it — in fact we should take comfort as our redemption draws near.

    Yes, we should do good as much as we can as lead by Jesus and yes, some are called into government service, but ultimately Jesus could have taken the throne of the Roman emperor and made it His own if he wanted to — His kingdom was not of this world though. God will direct the government where He wants it to go — good or bad depending upon His timing — our job is to make disciples of every Nation while He does that.

    As for public school, Paul walked the Roman Roads and so did Jesus. He appealed to Ceasar and rode on Roman ships and preached the Gospel in Roman prisons. Paul respectfully appeared before the counsel in Athens and before rulers when summoned. He was protected by Roman soldiers and never told Roman soldiers He interacted with to stop being Roman soldiers.

    So whatever we do, whether teacher or soldier or pastor, as long as we can do it to God’s glory and to the extent allowed make disciples of all nations we do it with all of our hearts. Same applies to private schools v. public v homeschool decision – go where called and do it to the Lord.

    Christianity is never a faith of compulsory anything — Jesus never forced anyone to follow Him. the truth of the Gospel, if relied upon and preached will reach exactly who it is supposed to reach.

  4. Right, I think their eschatological view has a lot to do with it. Yet I admire the idea that the gospel message not end with getting people to walk down an aisle to get “saved.” Making disciples is all encompassing where every part of one’s life is saturated with following Christ in everything he or she does.

    1. Making disciples is all encompassing where every part of one’s life is saturated with following Christ in everything he or she does.

      Yes, I definitely agree with that!

Leave a Reply