When we think about God’s will being done on earth as it is in heaven, we can imagine that in heaven inhabitants live together peacefully. Yet we find that on earth wars and other forms of human conflict occur frequently. Therefore, we are challenged to work for peace as part of our quest to live in God’s kingdom here and now.
Biblical perspectives on war and peace have evolved over the centuries.
Armed conflict. On the matter of war the Bible records very little armed conflict conducted by the founding Hebrew patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Warfare for the Israelites began on the journey from Egypt to the Promised Land as they defended themselves from hostile tribes. Then, according to biblical accounts, Yahweh guided Joshua and the Israelites in their conquest of Canaan as they destroyed cities, captured kings, annihilated the inhabitants, and killed livestock (Joshua 6:1-21; 8:1-29; 10:1-11:23).
Under Saul, the first monarch, Israel fought against enemies on every side (1 Samuel 14:47-48). His successor, King David, had great military success and expanded Israel’s territory (2 Samuel 8:1-14) because “the LORD of heavenly forces was with him” (1 Chronicles 11:9). Benefiting from David’s conquests, King Solomon built the temple and his luxurious palace with slave labor from conquered nations (1 Kings 9:15-22).
The two divided kingdoms after Solomon engaged in intermittent warfare, sometimes winning, other times losing. Over the years they were conquered by regional empires of Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, and Rome. (For a more complete account of battles, go to https://constantlyreforming.wordpress.com/every-battle-in-the-bible/.)
Prophecy. After centuries of warfare prophets began sending another message. Isaiah prophesied that nations
shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more (Isaiah 2:4, repeated in Micah 4:3 NRSV).
Isaiah also offered a vision of a peaceable kingdom where
The wolf will live with the lamb, and the leopard will lie down with the young goat; the calf and the lion will feed together, and a little child will lead them (Isaiah 11:6).
According to Hosea, the Lord proclaimed,
I will do away with the bow, the sword, and war from the land; I will make you lie down in safety (Hosea 2:18b).
Shalom. In addition the Hebrew Scriptures contain frequent references to shalom (peace) with multiple meanings: harmony, wholeness, right relationship. Isaiah foresaw a time when “justice will reside in wild lands, and righteousness will abide in farmlands. The fruit of righteousness will be peace [shalom], and the outcome of righteousness, calm and security forever” (Isaiah 32:16-17).
Eschatology. Another perspective of war appears in the Hebrew Scriptures: a vison of an apocalyptic future full of battles to bring in a new age. Written in the post-exilic period following return from Babylon in 538 BCE, versions are found in Ezekiel 38-39, Daniel 7-12, Isaiah 24-27, and Zachariah 12-14. They are literature not history as the authors use their imagination to show how good will prevail over evil.
While the Old Testament approaches issues of war and peace mainly in terms of relationships between tribes and nations, emphasis in the New Testament is more on individual conduct.
Guidance for peacemaking. Once again an important source of knowledge is the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5, 6, & 7) where we can discern an excellent outline of important elements for peacemaking.
- Be humble (5:5).
- Show mercy (5:7).
- Be peacemakers (5:9).
- Don’t get angry (5:22a).
- Don’t insult others (5:22b).
- Seek reconciliation (5:23-26).
- Don’t retaliate or respond to violence with violence (5:38-42).
- Love your enemies (5:44a).
- Pray for those who harass you (5:44b).
- Forgive those who have wronged you (6:12, 14-15).
To this we can add Paul’s instruction in Romans 12.
- Bless people who harass you (12:14).
- Don’t pay back anyone for their evil actions with evil action (12:17).
- Live at peace with all people (12:18).
- Don’t try to get revenge for yourself (12:19).
- If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him drink (12:20).
- Don’t be defeated by evil, but defeat evil with good (12:21).
Nonviolence. Jesus and his followers were consistently practitioners of nonviolence. Thus, following his triumphal entry into Jerusalem on the back of colt, Jesus confronted Jewish and Roman authorities in Jerusalem with words rather than arms. His expulsion of money changers and merchants from the temple invoked his moral authority. He debated Pharisees, Sadducees, and legal experts openly.
When soldiers captured Jesus at night in the Garden of Gethsemane, he offered no resistance. Matthew reports that when one of his disciples (Simon Peter according to John 18:10) drew his sword and cut off the ear of the high priest’s slave, Jesus admonished him, “Put the sword back in its place. All those who use the sword will die by the sword” (Matthew 26:52). Previously, according to Luke 22:35-38, Jesus encouraged his disciples to buy swords, acknowledged that two were enough. But then he later rejected their use. (The Bible reflects different memories.)
In accordance with their master’s teachings, the disciples and other followers of Jesus also practiced nonviolence and accepted persecution without seeking revenge. Peter and John were arrested and imprisoned more than once and offered no resistance (Acts 4:3; 5:17-18). They insisted, “We must obey God rather than humans!” (Acts 5:29). Stephen, the first of many martyrs, prayed, “Lord, don’t hold this sin against them!” (Acts 7:60).
After Saul changed from persecutor of Christians to become the Apostle Paul, he and Silas were stripped of their clothes, beaten with a rod, and thrown in prison where they sang hymns to God (Acts 16:16-40). Later Paul reported, “I’ve been beaten more times than I can count. I’ve faced death many times. I received the forty lashes minus one from the Jews five times. I was beaten with rods three times [a Roman punishment]. I was stoned once” (2 Corinthians 11:23-25). Never did Paul respond with violence, and ultimately he was executed in Rome for his beliefs.
Eschatology. Although the Gospels and the Epistles emphasize responding to violence with love and without retaliation, there are New Testament passages that foresee mighty battles occurring in a future age before the end of time. These writings are in the eschatological tradition of Ezekiel and Daniel.
Mark has Jesus speak of a time when nations and kingdoms will fight against each other and other calamities will occur before the Son of Man comes in the clouds with great power and splendor (Mark 13:1-27). Matthew provides a parallel passage (Matthew 24:1-31). These passages are conjecture of a future of God’s own choosing, not justification for use of arms in our times. As Jesus himself acknowledged, only the Father knows the day or hour when such events will occur (Mark 13:32).
Revelation. The Revelation to John also displays a cosmic struggle between good and evil. Some persons use the description of mighty battles to justify war. However, they draw the wrong message from this literary masterpiece.
The leading figure, sitting on the throne, is the Lamb who was slain. This depicts Jesus Christ who conquered not through violence even in self-defense but who instead accepted death upon the cross. Handel picked up the words of Revelation in the final chorus of The Messiah: “Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power, and riches, and wisdom, and strength, and honor and glory, and blessing” (Revelation 5:12 King James Version).
In a war in heaven Michael and his angels defeat a great dragon (called the Devil and Satan), “on account of the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their witness” (Revelation 12:11). That is, not by armed might.
Later a rider, wearing a robe dipped in blood, rides on a white horse and leads armies of heaven garbed in fine linens against the beast (Satan), a false prophet, and the armies of the kings of the earth. The beast and false prophet are thrown into a lake of burning sulfur, and the armies are killed “by the sword that comes from the mouth of the rider on the horse” (Revelation 19:11-21). It is a metaphorical battle where the rider is the Lamb stained by his own blood and the sword is the word of God.
Then John sees a New Jerusalem where God will dwell with his people. “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more. There will be no mourning, crying, or pain anymore for the former things have passed away.” Sitting on the throne, God promises, “To the thirsty I will give water from the life-giving spring” (Revelation 21:4-6).
This reminds us of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount where those who mourn are comforted, those who thirst for righteousness are filled, the merciful receive mercy. Where peacemakers, the persecuted, and those who love their enemies are considered children of God. The New Jerusalem achieves Jesus’ prayer, “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”