A Biblical Perspective of Self-Defense and Civil Disobedience
A Free Excerpt
- 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 (see excerpt below)
- 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: 26 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.
- Before Jesus completed his ministry, he sometimes avoided regions where he might face danger, though at other times he went there despite the risk.
- He wasn’t reluctant to make controversial statements or give rebukes that might incite strong reactions.
- On several occasions, he either avoided capture or slipped away from those trying to kill him.
- When he knew it was time to face his crucifixion, he deliberately went to Jerusalem, allowed himself to be captured, and made statements he knew would incite the religious leaders against him.
- He refused to say anything that might prevent his execution, submitted to the physical abuse preceding it and refused to call on angelic hosts to rescue him.
- In other words, Jesus took prudent measures to protect himself from harm until it was time for him to die.
Having examined Jesus’ responses to danger, let’s consider his teachings about what his followers should do.
“Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (Matt. 5:10 – 12)
We should consider ourselves blessed if people persecute us because of our righteousness, if people insult us or persecute us because of Jesus. This doesn’t specifically address retaliation or defense, but if we consider such an experience a blessing, we may be less likely to defend ourselves. This doesn’t mean self-defense would be inappropriate, only that we should “rejoice and be glad” for the experience.
“You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to his brother, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell” (Matt. 5:21 – 22). Not only are we forbidden to murder, we shouldn’t even be angry with another Christian (a “brother”) or treat them with contempt. When would we normally be angry with someone? When they harm us or try to do so. Refusing to be angry doesn’t mean we also refuse to defend ourselves, only that we refuse to be angry. Defending ourselves and getting angry are typical responses to threats, but one is acceptable, the other is not.
“Settle matters quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court. Do it while you are still with him on the way, or he may hand you over to the judge, and the judge may hand you over to the officer, and you may be thrown into prison. I tell you the truth, you will not get out until you have paid the last penny” (Matt. 5:25 – 26). If someone is taking you to court, settle the matter in advance. The context presumes you are guilty of the charge (“You will not get out until you have paid the last penny”) in which case any form of self-protection is inappropriate, such as self-defense or self-justification.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles….
“Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” (Matt. 5:38 – 41, 44)
We shouldn’t resist an evil person or withhold what they demand. Some insist “turn the other cheek” refers only to a slap on the face and isn’t relevant to dangerous attacks. We must keep this in context, however, which includes “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”
We are to love our enemies and pray for–not against–those who persecute us. The normal sinful tendency is to reward those who are good to us and retaliate against those who treat us badly. Instead, we’re to deny such a sinful inclination by doing good and blessing those who intend us harm.
Many would argue this prohibits defending ourselves in any way, but especially with deadly force. But does loving someone and praying for them keep us from defending ourselves from them? If so, self-defense is never appropriate because we’re to love even our enemies. And Jesus would’ve violated his own teaching because he protected himself from harm until it was time for his crucifixion. Notice also that Jesus presented this teaching before he directed his disciples to buy swords if they didn’t have any. We must conclude loving our enemies doesn’t prevent us from defending ourselves from them, maybe even with lethal means. As we’ll see later, the main issue here is dealing with one’s own sinful instincts.
“So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matt. 6:31 – 33). This requires a complete realignment of priorities. The world thinks our priority should be to take care of ourselves. Instead, we must make God’s kingdom and his righteousness our top priorities and let him provide whatever we need.
This passage doesn’t refer to protection and defense, nor does it refer to housing and transportation. Does this mean God’s only concerned with a few of our basic needs, not all of them? Certainly not. The issue here is priorities: don’t focus on what we need as the pagans do, but on God’s kingdom and righteousness. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t provide for or defend ourselves and our families.
“I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves. Be on your guard against men; they will hand you over to the local councils and flog you in their synagogues. On my account you will be brought before governors and kings as witnesses to them and to the Gentiles. But when they arrest you, do not worry about what to say or how to say it. At that time you will be given what to say, for it will not be you speaking, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.” (Matt. 10:16 – 20)
Jesus sent his disciples out as sheep among wolves; that is, unable to defend themselves from attack by civil and religious leadership. They were to be “shrewd”; the Greek word means thoughtful (giving thought to their ways), rational, clever, prudent and wise (in considering and preparing). They were to be “innocent”; the Greek word means to give careful thought to their ways and be prudent in what they do, but be free of guilt. He told them, “be on your guard against men”; this is self-explanatory, because he said men would arrest and beat them. He also said this would create opportunities to speak on his behalf before authorities and leaders. He didn’t mention running away or protecting themselves, but instead said to be on their guard, which implies expecting danger and preparing for it. Jesus’ emphasis here is to warn them and encourage them not to worry about what they should say because God will speak through them.
Jesus made similar statements at another time about the last days in Matthew 24, Mark 13 and Luke 21.
“[T]hey will lay hands on you and persecute you. They will deliver you to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors, and all on account of my name. This will result in your being witnesses to them. But make up your mind not to worry beforehand how you will defend yourselves. For I will give you words and wisdom that none of your adversaries will be able to resist or contradict. You will be betrayed even by parents, brothers, relatives and friends, and they will put some of you to death. All men will hate you because of me. But not a hair of your head will perish. By standing firm you will save yourselves.” (Luke 21:12 – 19)
The issue here is believers being arrested and persecuted because of Jesus’ name. We shouldn’t worry about what to say because he will give us words and wisdom none of our adversaries can resist or contradict.
He then makes seemingly contradictory statements: (1) their relatives and friends will betray them and put some to death; (2) not a hair of their head will perish; and (3) by standing firm to the end they will save themselves. Unlike the civil governments that will arrest and persecute them, families and friends will kill some of them. To resolve the apparent contradiction in Jesus’ statements, we must jump ahead briefly to the conclusions of this study. In response to our normal human instinct for self-preservation, we must be willing to avoid protecting, defending or preserving ourselves; however, we must be willing to sacrifice ourselves for the protection, defense or preservation of others. Regarding Jesus’ statements in the Luke 21 passage quoted above, the result of believers being arrested is their being witnesses to those in authority, and God then will give them words to say which the authorities can’t resist or contradict. So Jesus’ statements are not contradictory.
“When you are persecuted in one place, flee to another” (Matt. 10:23). His instruction to his disciples is consistent with his own practice: don’t hang around where you’re persecuted. In Matthew 5:10 – 12, he said they should consider themselves blessed if they’re persecuted, but here he instructs them to leave; so they should consider themselves blessed, but not be masochistic.
“Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matt. 10:28). In other words, don’t be afraid to die, as this life is temporal.
“If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it” (Matt. 16:24 – 25). To deny ourselves is to reject all forms of self-centeredness, and to take up our cross is to embrace what can harm or destroy us. Self-defense isn’t an option here; instead, we should be ready to lose our lives for Jesus’ sake. John 12:25 records a similar statement: “The man who loves his life will lose it, while the man who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” So anyone who loves his earthly life (thinks mostly about this life or tries to protect himself under all circumstances) will lose his eternal life. Conversely, anyone who hates his earthly life, comparatively speaking, and is willing to give it up for Jesus’ sake will have eternal life, which again indicates self-defense is not an option. (Also see Matthew 10:39, Mark 8:35 and Luke 9:24.)
“Love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 19:19). “In everything, do to others what you would have them do to you” (Matt. 7:12; also see Gal. 5:14; James 2:8). The Bible uses our concern for our own well-being as a standard for how we treat others. We all would want someone to protect us from harm, so protecting others from harm would be a legitimate application of these verses.
Jesus told a parable, in which he described a landowner who put a wall around his vineyard and built a watchtower (Matt. 21:33). He built protection for his vineyard, which was a common practice. Jesus didn’t suggest this was inappropriate; instead, he approved prudent measures to protect one’s personal property.
“But understand this: If the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming, he would have kept watch and would not have let his house be broken into” (Matt. 24:43). If a thief might steal from us, it’s appropriate to protect our possessions. This is such common sense Jesus uses it as an example of being ready for his return. Clearly implied in this analogy is the homeowner’s response. He wouldn’t meet the thief at the door and ask him not to steal anything or offer him a small gift for not taking everything of value. Instead, it’s acceptable for the homeowner to keep watch and not allow anyone to break into his house.
“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11). Jesus portrays his followers as sheep he protects and cares for, doing what they can’t do for themselves. Although not his primary emphasis, his statement sets a clear example of sacrificing oneself to protect others, a principle we’ll address in a later section.
Consider what should be obvious about the shepherd laying down his life for his sheep: He’s not offering himself as a substitute meal, hoping to satisfy the attacking animal’s appetite so it will leave the sheep alone. Rather, the shepherd risks his life by combating wild animals threatening the flock. A pacifist or fearful shepherd would soon have no flock.
Jesus used implicitly violent analogies in many of his parables: overcoming a strongman before looting his house; killing tenants who murdered the landlord’s son; a shepherd laying down his life to protect his flock from wild animals; and other analogies. By his behavior and teachings, he proved he was not a pacifist. No one could legitimately accuse him of being fearful, timid or weak.
- Jesus required his followers to reject normal self-centered concerns and set an example by giving himself for the salvation of others. However, protection and defense are appropriate, especially when providing it for others.
- He said his followers should consider themselves blessed if people insult or persecute them because of him.
- He taught his followers to use discretion by avoiding danger at times, yet he sent them into enemy territory to destroy the enemy’s works.
(End of excerpt)
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