My regular reading practice of the Gospels has been most acutely altered over the past few years as a direct result of what now strikes me as a painfully obvious hermeneutical principle. In sum, I have learned to read all (without exception–I really do mean all) of Jesus’ sayings and actions in light of His coming death at the end of the story. Actually, that statement in itself is insufficient. It would be far more accurate to say that I have learned to view and interpret everything Jesus says and does within the framework of the theological significance the earliest Christians ascribed to the cross. What does it mean to go the extra mile, to turn the other cheek, to take up one’s cross and follow, to love our enemies, in light of this supreme enactment of the kingdom of God in our midst?
One passage in particular that has taken on an utterly different twist for me on account of this narrative strategy, as I quietly ask the end to explain the beginning for me, is the strange saying of Jesus recorded in Matthew 11:11-12 and Luke 16:16-17. You know, the part about how the kingdom of God is apparently taken and entered by those who are violent. Many a scholar has tried to evade the awkward reality that Jesus seems to praise and commend those who do violence here. Nonetheless those who are willing to employ force here are clearly the “good guys.” They are not those who wrongfully persecute Jesus’ peaceful followers. Is Jesus then suggesting terrorism? Is this typical religious rhetoric for militaristic domination and expansion? Should we see images of planes crashing into skyscrapers as we listen to Jesus’ words?
Of course not. Throughout the Gospels (and the NT at large), military images and warfare language are consistently employed in subversive fashion. Jesus’ disciples are to be violent–but only in that they are to so value the kingdom that they are willing to cut off their own hands or gouge out their own eyes if these cause them to stumble. They are to “conquer” (in the language of Revelation) by laying down their lives and refusing to return evil for evil. They are to hate with all of their own being–but the object of their hate is their own lives in this age, in comparison to the coming of God’s restored reign in a new heaven and a new earth in the world to come. And so on, and so on.
I am comforted that many other Christians throughout history have understood that the gospel turns such traditional religious expectations upside-down–a logical necessity given the way God chose to accomplish our redemption through Jesus’ “strange triumph” on the cross. Consider this passage from Jonathan Edwards, on how the good soldiers of Jesus Christ manifest their “boldness” as they enlist in his army:
“But here some may be ready to say [in light of JE’s argument that meekness is a central Christian virtue]: Is there no such thing as Christian fortitude, and boldness for Christ, being good soldiers in the Christian warfare, and coming out boldly against the enemies of Christ and His people?
To which I answer: There doubtless is such a thing. The whole Christian life is compared to a warfare, and fitly so. The most eminent Christians are the best soldiers, endued with the greatest degrees of Christian fortitude. It is the duty of God’s people to be steadfast and vigorous in their opposition to the designs and ways of such as are endeavoring to overthrow the kingdom of Christ and the interest of religion. But yet many persons seem to be quite mistaken concerning the nature of Christian fortitude. It is an exceeding diverse thing from a brutal fierceness, or the boldness of beasts of prey. True Christian fortitude consists in strength of mind, through grace, exerted in two things: in ruling and suppressing the evil and unruly passions and affections of the mind; and in steadfastly and freely exerting and following good affections and dispositions, without being hindered by sinful fear or the opposition of enemies. But the passions that are restrained and kept under in the exercise of this Christian strength and fortitude, are those very passions that are vigorously and violently exerted in a false boldness for Christ. And those affections that are vigorously exerted in true fortitude are those Christian holy affections that are directly contrary to them. Though Christian fortitude appears in withstanding and counteracting the enemies that are without us; yet it much more appears in resisting and suppressing the enemies that are within us; because they are our worst and strongest enemies and have greatest advantage against us. The strength of the good soldier of Jesus Christ appears in nothing more than in steadfastly maintaining the holy calm, meekness, sweetness, and benevolence of his mind, amidst all the storms, injuries, strange behavior, and surprising acts and events of this evil and unreasonable world…
The directest and surest way in the world to make a right judgment of what is a holy fortitude in fighting with God’s enemies, is to look to the Captain of all God’s hosts, and our great Leader and Example, and see wherein his fortitude and valor appeared, in His chief conflict, and in the time of the greatest battle that ever was or ever will be fought with these enemies, when He fought with them all alone, and of the people there was none with Him. He exercised His fortitude in the highest degree that ever He did, and got that glorious victory that will be celebrated in the praises and triumphs of all the hosts of heaven throughout all eternity.
Behold Jesus Christ in the time of His last sufferings, when His enemies in earth and hell made their most violent attack upon Him, compassing Him round on every side like rending and roaring lions. Doubtless here we shall see the fortitude of a holy warrior and champion in the cause of God in its highest perfection and greatest luster, and an example fit for the soldiers to follow that fight under this Captain. But how did He show His holy boldness and valor at that time? Not in the exercise of any fiery passions; not in fierce and violent speeches, vehemently declaiming against the intolerable wickedness of opposers, giving them their own in plain terms: but in not opening His mouth when afflicted and oppressed, in going as a lamb to the slaughter, and, as a sheep before his shearers is dumb, not opening his mouth; praying that the Father would forgive His cruel enemies because they knew not what they did; not shedding others’ blood, but with all-conquering patience and love shedding his own. Indeed, one of his disciples, that made a forward pretence to boldness for Christ and confidently declared he would sooner die with Christ than deny Him, began to lay about him with a sword: but Christ meekly rebukes him, and heals the wound he gives. Never was the patience, meekness, love, and forgiveness of Christ so gloriously manifest as at that time. Never did He appear so much a Lamb, and never did he show so much of the dove-like spirit as at that time.
If therefore we see any of the followers of Christ, in the midst of the most violent, unreasonable, and wicked opposition of God’s and his own enemies, maintaining under all this temptation, the humility and quietness and gentleness of a lamb, and the harmlessness and love and sweetness of a dove, we may well judge that here is a good soldier of Jesus Christ.” (Jonathan Edwards, Religious Affections, pp. 277-79)