This will be the final installment of this series, and indeed the shortest post of them all. If you have stuck with me thus far, thank you! If not, stop reading now, and go to part 1, then read part 2, and part 3 before going any further.
Today we will end with some tangible thoughts on how I think these ideas and facts intersect with modern Western Christianity. I will offer some critique for the modern church that, though it might sound a bit harsh, is said out of a love for her and her mission in this world.
The Slow Fade Into Worldliness
In the pre-Constantinian age, the voices of Tertullian, Origen, Cyprian, Justin, and Hippolytus spoke in unison, condemning the use of violence and military service in the kingdom of God. The idea of taking up the sword to defend the church was never in the minds of the early Christians, for they knew that the most potent weapon they wielded against the empire was their peace, their pacifism. It was not until the time of Constantine that the lines between the empires of earth and the kingdom of God began to blur. It was when Christians inherited the power to command earthly armies that Christians began to meld these two worlds together, and rather quickly, the cross itself, the antithesis of the sword, began to be emblazoned on weapons of war, shields, and helmets. As Christianity merged with Emperor Constantine’s rule and began to receive the benefits of power, it also began to shift its views of the use of violence. Eventually, pure pacifism would give way to a ‘just war’ mindset. The change a slow and gradual one, but once the cross and the sword had been united, Christians would not be able to regain the courage to separate them again until this very day.
Critiquing the Modern Church
It seems that most of the world has always understood that Jesus taught non-violence; most, that is, except for Christians. For many in the modern evangelical church, the answer to violence in the world today is more violence, and the gun has replaced the sword. The now infamous words of the President of the National Rifle Association, Wayne LaPierre, (a self-proclaimed Christian) are forever seared in our collective minds: “The only thing that can stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun!”. And the majority of white Evangelical Christians in American seem to agree with this sentiment.
In American Christianity, the firearm seems to have risen to occupy an almost sacred position. The government-sanctioned right to “keep and bear arms,” as the 2ndamendment words it, “shall not be infringed,” and in some Christian circles, these government-given rights are spoken of as “God-given” rights. This divine infused language is not necessarily absent from the very words of the American constitution itself, which argues the “self-evident” truth that all people are “endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights,” such as life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. These ideas presumably necessitate the use of personal and deadly force against all those who would threaten those ideals. Like Rome, American ideals are upheld by the sword; by violence. And this scenario has once again put the church in a precarious situation.
Many American Evangelicals are so immersed in the American philosophy of life that it never occurs to them to seek the counsel of the church fathers or the writings of the Apostles to ascertain biblical instruction as to what Jesus Christ reveals about Gods will for his children. Much like in Tertullian’s day, some still point to the Old Testament violence as evidence that the people of God are free to use violence to purge the earth of those who would threaten them and our land. “If you don’t agree with what Jesus believes about violence,” they might say, “you can always use the Bible to try and find a loophole; you could point out the violence of 1 Samuel 15:3 to ‘Go and attack them with the sword and destroy all they have. Do not spare them, but kill men, women, children, and babies;’” And as Tertullian pointed out, that it is what some Christians will do. However, when we use the bible to silence Jesus in this way, we are using an account of the actions of an unfinished people (Israel) to silence the complete revelation of God in the world: Jesus. This is the same Jesus who said to Pilate, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my servants would be fighting” (Jn 18:36).
The readiness of the modern church to prepare for war, to use violence, and to join in with the military operations of earthly empires is particularly troubling in light of the faith of the early church. The insinuation is that the martyr has no place in the 21st-century church; that the martyr is simply a fool without a gun whose life has been cut short for lack of firearms training. There seems to be no place in the modern church for the one who utterly refuses to kill, the one who believes that there are things far worse than death (like destroying the imago Dei in another). But if there is no “blood of the martyrs,” as Tertullian would call it, then how will the world see the power of the cross to truly save?
The Christian, according to Tertullian, is the “son of peace.” She/he is the one who has traded the ways of the world for the ways of Christ, trading the sword for the cross. If the kingdom of God is to be present in the world, the bride of Christ must once again discover the cross’s power, for it is the power of God unto salvation.
Thus, as the Christian and Latin poet, Commodianus, declared, the Christian must “make thyself a peace-maker to all men.”
C. John Cadoux. Early Christian Attitude to War, (Kindle Locations 1460-1469).
Today we will look specifically at how the church fathers responded to the violence inflicted upon them. This is important as it pertains to discussions on self-defense (which we will touch on next week) and the role of the martyrs in the plan of God for evangelism and bringing others into the kingdom. This post addresses what the world sees and feels when they see Christians refusing to use violence in any form, even in the face of great violence against themselves.
Martyrdom as a Display of the Cross
The sacrificial deaths of many of the early church fathers and church members stand as the ultimate display of pacifism in the ancient world. Martyrdom became the most effective tool in neutering the power of the sword of the empire. Long before persecution was systematized in January 250, Christians for two-hundred years had been choosing to lay down their lives (rather than fighting for them), dying for their faith (instead of killing for it) in various corners of the empire, and the influence of the martyrs cannot be understated.
It has always been so that, when the church suffers persecution, it grows faster and stronger than at times of peace. And while Roman’s believed that the persecution of the church would represent an unflattering advertisement to those looking to join Christianity, many who watched the Christians die ended up becoming Christians themselves. They marveled at those who would suffer such things and wondering what incredible power this faith must contain that people would ever die for it. Indeed, the courage to respond to violence with utter peace was something that Rome ultimately could not overcome in the war of ideology.
Public martyrdom is responsible for creating some of the greatest thinkers of the early church. Irenaeus of Lyons personally knew and was heavily influenced by the famous martyr, Polycarp, who had been ordained by the apostle John. He served the church during the persecution in what is now France, he spent the rest of his days defending the church against Gnosticism and Heresies, and he is believed to have been martyred near the turn of the third century.
Tertullian started as a well-educated and devout citizen of Rome but was converted to Christianity at the sight of their persecution. He was impressed with their courage and resolve as they were being thrown to lions and burnt alive in broad daylight. Long after his conversion, he is known to have written: “The more we are mown down by you, the more numerous we grow; the blood of Christians is seed.”
Origen, one of the most influential figures in ancient Christianity, saw his father arrested and martyred when he was only 17 years old. He is known to have written a letter to his father, urging him to stand firm in the face of persecution, urging him not to forsake his faith and not to fear for the family he was leaving behind. As he grew, his greatest desire was to suffer the martyrdom that so many great church leaders endured, something that would ultimately escape him as he is known to have survived severe torture at the hands of the Romans for his faith. This torture left him broken, scarred, and unable to continue his work in his old age, but his courageous example of faithful and peaceful endurance of the evils of violent men was passed on to his pupils as well. Notably, during one particularly violent outbreak of persecution under emperor Decius, Dionysius of Alexandria, one of Origen’s pupils, actually survived persecution because of his peace and courage in the face of violence. The soldiers had been scouring the city for days searching for him, and they did not think of going to his house where they would have found him patiently and prayerfully awaiting his arrest and execution.
In AD 165, a debate ensued between Justin Martyr and a pagan philosopher called Crescens in which Crescens, having lost the debate, complained to the authorities that Justin was teaching a forbidden religion. Justin was swiftly arrested, and his trial was brief. He refused to make any sacrifices to the Roman gods before the courts, and together with six other Christians who also had been arrested for their faith, he was scourged and beheaded. He has been seen as an archetype of Christians in persecuted countries ever since, and the word martyr has been permanently transfixed to his name as a way of communicating to all other persecuted Christians that they are in good company.
And by far, the most exceptional example of peaceful Christ-like resistance is the life of Ignatius. Everything that we have of his, the information about his life and the writings of his hands, come to us from captivity while he was awaiting execution for his faith. He was arrested during the persecution of Antioch and was sent to Rome under the guard of ten soldiers. As they sailed west, he was frequently visited by other Christians whom he urged not to intervene with violence to free him. Instead, they are encouraged to let himself “be poured out as a libation to God while an altar is at hand.”
As Ignatius traveled, he wrote of how, through his mistreatment and his bonds, he had become more of a disciple than ever before, even praying that he might “benefit from the wild beasts prepared” for him. He knew that upon his death, the Christians would give him more of an ear than ever before, for the words of the martyr carry more weight than the words of regular men and women, and he knew that he must use this opportunity to edify and instruct the churches.
The letters men like Ignatius come to us from the path of the cross, instead of the sword. They display the power of the cross of Christ in ways that can never be diminished. The victory of the sword of Roman persecutors was swift, but it was temporary, for the world would quickly see the truth that Christ himself has shown us that the cross is stronger because it ends in resurrection. Rather quickly, the writings of the martyrs rose to places of prominence and authority in the church. The church began to gather annually over the graves of the martyrs to venerate and admire their faith, and to ask for strength to follow their examples. This tradition continues until today in some parts of the world.
The word pacifism is often confused with the idea of pacifying or letting the enemy have what they want. However, the actual meaning is found in the root Latin word pax (peace), and it means peace-making. According to Commodianus (250), the call of the Christian is to “make thyself a peace-maker to all men.” In the Roman empire, where the pax-Romana meant peace at the tip of a sword, the church fathers knew that Jesus taught non-violent peace-making. The passage of scripture that comes up more than any other in the writings of the church fathers is Isaiah 2:4-5, which says:
“He will judge between the nations
and will settle disputes for many peoples.
They will beat their swords into plowshares
and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will not take up sword against nation,
nor will they train for war anymore.
Come, descendants of Jacob,
let us walk in the light of the Lord.”
The people of God were looking forward to a day when war, and training for war, would be a thing of the past. They believe that the age of the church was ushering in that day. They believed that they should now focus on planting and reaping, and on kingdom-building and worship, instead of war and survival. They believed that in Christ, God had indeed judged the nations and that it was now time to walk in the light of the Lord; that peace had finally come and was also still coming; that God’s realm was here already, though not yet fully present. Furthermore, they believed that, in this kingdom, there is no place for weapons of war.
C. John Cadoux. Early Christian Attitude to War, (Kindle Locations 1460-1469).
Jonathan Hill. History of Christian Thought, 22.
Tertullian, Apology, ch 50.
Jonathan Hill. History of Christian thought, 39.
Jonathan Hill, History of Christian Thought, 17
Robert Louis Wilken. The First Thousand Years: A Global History of Christianity, 28.
READ PART 1: HERE
This week we are diving into the theological arguments of the Early Church Fathers regarding the use of weapons (the sword in their day, the gun in ours) and their use (or lack thereof) to the Christian in responding to evil.
Tertullian’s Argument from Gethsemane
The theological argument for the pacifism of the church fathers comes directly from scriptures, and Tertullian made much of the interactions of Christ with weapons of war in his day.
Matthew 26 records an incident in the garden of Gethsemane when Jesus and his disciples were directly confronted by men with swords (1st-century form of law enforcement) seeking to arrest Jesus and have him tried on trumped-up charges. One of the disciples, in an attempt to defend Jesus using violence, draws his sword, and according to Luke, striking a soldier with it. Instead of commendation from Jesus for standing his ground in defense, he receives a rebuke and a command to put the sword away.
So why did Jesus tell them to bring a sword if they weren’t allowed to use it? Luke (22:36-38) informs the readers that the reason he carried the sword was to fulfill the prophecy of Isaiah 53:12 (that the Messiah would be seen as a violent insurrectionist), and so that he could teach them that the kingdom of God would not be established through the sword, but rather through the cross.
Tertullian, referring to this episode in Gethsemane, says: “But how will a Christian man war, nay, how will he serve even in peace, without a sword, which the Lord has taken away? For albeit soldiers had come unto John and had received the formula of their rule; albeit, likewise, a centurion had believed; still the Lord afterward, in disarming Peter, unbelted every soldier.”
Skeptics will point out that chapter nineteen of Tertullian’s “On Idolatry” pertains explicitly to military service. However, Tertullian’s argument is not merely that a Christian cannot serve in the military because it is a rival master (although that argument is made there as well), but rather that a Christian cannot serve in the military because the Christian cannot bear the sword. The problem is not merely idolatry, but the use of violence against the image of God in others.
In Tertullian’s day, as well as our own, some choose to look past Christ to the Old Testament in order to justify the use of violence for modern Christians. We can see from his writings that some were arguing that, since Moses carried a rod, and since Aaron carried a buckle (to secure a weapon to his side), and since Joshua led a warring army, then it follows that the Christian might find it acceptable as one of Gods people to also engage in military service.
However, Tertullian will not allow Jesus to be silenced by the Old Testament. He points to Jesus, who heals the soldier that Peter struck with his sword and proclaims: “Put your sword back in its place, for all who draw the sword will die by the sword.” 
For Tertullian and the early church fathers, Jesus is the full expression of God, and he has revealed God to be completely and utterly non-violent; choosing to go to the cross rather than to wield the sword.
A Unique People in the World
It is a fundamental understanding of the ancient church in the first two centuries that the Christian community is to be sanctified, set apart from the ways of the world. Paul, speaking directly to the church in Rome, did not diminish the importance of the uniqueness of the Christian life. In Romans 12, Paul explicitly instructs both Jewish and Gentile Christians gathering there to “not conform to the pattern of this world but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is.”
Paul is expectant that the follower of Jesus will live a life that is remarkably different from the Roman culture that they are immersed in every day. For Paul, this uniqueness of life comes from the revelation of Christ, whose response to sin and violence leveled against himself on the cross was a willingness to forgive and restore.
Like Paul, Justin Martyr reflected on the words and the revelation of Christ. He describes the church as:
“we who hated and slew one another, and because of customs would not share a common hearth with those who were not of our tribe, now, after the appearance of Christ, have become sociable, and pray for our enemies, and try to persuade those who hate unjustly, in order that they, living according to the good suggestions of Christ, may share our hope of obtaining the same from the God who is Master of all.”
Justin considers the rejection of violence and the ability to forgive and pray for enemies as one of the marks of God’s people; it is a part of our unique identity in the world.
Elsewhere Justin references the prophecy of Isaiah and says that Christians have “changed the instruments of war, the swords into plows and the spears into farming implements, and we cultivate piety, righteousness, love for men, faith, (and) the hope which is from the Father Himself through the Crucified One.” The implication here is that the church is a kingdom without weapons of war, for the church does not see war as a tool of any use to the world that they are working towards.
The fundamental answers that the church has to offer the world in response to evil is not the same answer that the kingdoms of earth are offering. If the church’s answer to evil is war, bloodshed, and violence, then our king is not unique, and our kingdom is just as “of this world” as any other. The church fathers understood that the power of the church to bring restoration to the world was rooted in its other-worldly answers. The strange dichotomy of the gospel is that victory comes through defeat, that life comes through death, and that peace comes through the cross, and not the sword.
We will look at how the sacrificial deaths of many of the early church fathers and church members stand as the ultimate display of pacifism in the ancient world, and indeed became the most effective tool in neutering the power of the sword of the empire.
 Tertullian, On Idolatry,XIX.
 Justin, Apologia I, XIV. 3.
 Cadoux, Cecil John. 2015. The Early Christian Attitude to War: A Contribution to the History of Christian Ethics. Kindle Location 1954.
The Same Way, or a New Way?
The response to evil in the world is something that the church claims to possess above all other claims. The church claims that the cross of Christ is the answer to those prone to violence, those quick to use the threat of physical violence to coerce, and to those who would attempt to bring peace at the tip end of a sword (or the barrel of a gun). Throughout human history, that answer has been to fight fire with fire; to use violence to try and end violence. Moreover, though the use of ‘redemptive violence’ (a term first coined by American biblical scholar, theologian, and activist, Walter Wink) has grown to epic proportions over the last century as an answer to evil, violence in the 20thcentury has not been diminished. In fact, the 20th century was the most violent in human history. Despite the best efforts of good people, war and violence have never ceased for even a single day.
This series of posts will seek aim to clarify the position of the early church to present its answer to violence and war in the world, along with its response to those who would wield it. In this first post, I will look at the attitude of Christians towards the military, the next post will be an exploration of the church Father’s theology of Pacifism. In subsequent posts, I will outline the unique mindset of the Christians in the world that led them to reject the ways of the world, and in my final post, I will speak to the modern church about regaining this uniqueness and aligning herself once again with the power of the cross, and not the sword.
Military Service and the Church
Perhaps the most significant difference between the modern church and the church of the first and second-century has to do with their collective attitude towards military service, something that most American Christians naturally assume is an acceptable and even encouraged vocation for a follower of Jesus. Readers of first and second-century Christian writings are often surprised to find that there was no conversation about the merits of armed forces. In fact, it was assumed that being a follower of Jesus and being a soldier is incompatible.
From the end of the New Testament period to the about A.D. 170-80, there is no evidence whatsoever of Christians serving in the military.In the writings of the early church fathers, military abstention seems to be taken for granted. What is clear is that, outside of the biblical account of Cornelius (Acts 10:1-8) and the jailor baptized by Paul (Acts 16:33), there is not a single reference to or record of a Christian serving in the military before 170 CE.
Hippolytus, one of the most important theologians of the second and third centuries, wrote a manual to help guide the church body in his day. In that document entitled The Apostolic Tradition, he states that “a military man in authority must not execute men. If he is ordered, he must not carry it out. Nor must he take military oath. If he refuses, he shall be rejected. If someone is a military governor… he shall cease, or he shall be rejected. The catechumen or faithful who wants to become a soldier is to be rejected, for he has despised God.”With that last sentence, Hippolytus is direct and clear in his statement that there is no place in the life of a member of the church for military service.
There are presumably several reasons for this, including the pagan insignia that soldiers were required to wear, and perhaps most of all, the early church would point to the fact that military service required an oath of allegiance made to both the emperor and the gods or the emperor as a god. However, the baptized Christian has been reborn into the service of Christ and Christ alone; they have a single allegiance, and therefore any allegiances given to others are incompatible with the Christian faith as the early Christians understood it. Indeed, they would have rejected any ‘Pledge of Allegiance’ to any earthly state or nation. Those pledges would fall under the category of idolatry.
Another reason for the rejection of military service amongst the early church would be the matter of the shedding of blood. The Roman military was brutally violent, often making a public display of torturing and killing dissenters. One incident during the reign of Diocletian describes a Roman Proconsul traveling through the city of Tebessia in Numidia (Algeria) on a mission to recruit soldiers. He came upon a twenty-one-year-old Christian man named Maximilian and demanded that he serve in the third Augustan legion. The young man refused, citing the fact that his Christian faith forbids him to wear the seal around his neck because the seal of Christ had marked him. He was summarily executed as a warning to all passersby.
Besides Hippolytus and Justin Martyr, we also have the words of a protagonist writing against the practice of the Christians to refuse military service. Celsus, a pagan and a critic of Christianity, lashes out against the Christian community for their refusal to serve the empire. His words make it evident that he is well aware of the Christian position, and he argues that “if all men were to do the same as you, there would be nothing to prevent the king from being left behind in utter solitude and desertion, and the forces of the empire would fall into the hands of the wildest and most lawless barbarians.”He argues that Christianity is a threat to the empire because Roman peace is upheld by the sword, which means that if Christianity spreads, there will be no more swords to uphold the empire at all!
This was not the first time that the Christian ethic of refraining from military service caused problems in the empire. Justin Martyr, in his The First Apology, writing to try and ease the fear of emperor Antoninus Pius, argued that Christians are no threat to the empire because our king is not an earthly and human one. Rather, it is a kingdom that cannot be seen, and which has been already inaugurated, only to be revealed when Christ returns. He quotes the Prophet Isaiah’s words about how his followers “will beat their swords into plowshares” and how they “will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore,”all intended to stave any fears of a violent Christian uprising. He says: “We who once murdered each other indeed no longer wage war against our enemies; moreover, so as not to bear false witness before our interrogators, we cheerfully die confessing Christ.”
Here, in chapter 39 chapter of Justin’s letter, he has set the tone for how the early Christians would exist in the world amongst other kings and kingdoms. The mere attempt to live a normal life in the Roman empire was often disrupted with challenges loyalty to Caesar over Christ. Christians might find themselves unable to buy, sell, or trade in the agora marketplace, a right which was often accessible only after offering incense to Caesar as a god. They would find it impossible to serve in seats of parliament, which required incantations and offerings to other kings and deities.
The propensity of the Romans towards the use of violence was not just limited to military culture, but the broader roman culture also. It was entirely normal to witness extreme acts of violence almost daily in the roman world; gladiators engaging in “blood sport;” men and women alike, fighting in the arena by torchlight in the evenings,and public executions were regular evening events, but these things offended the sensibilities of the Christians, keeping them away. Furthermore, Christianity, not being an officially recognized religion in the empire, was generally looked upon as a bizarre fringe group and a strange thing to be a part of. They were called anti–social for not taking part in attendance of the violent gladiator games; they were called atheists for not worshiping the local deities,and they were called cannibals because of the way they spoke about taking part in the eucharist. All of these things made them a threat to the empire, both culturally and politically.
It is clear then that, while the church was divided amongst many theological issues, there was unity amongst Christians about abstaining from military service. The first recorded instance of a member of the church serving the empire in this way comes to us around 173, listed amongst the ranks of the Thundering Legionunder Marcus Aurelius. From that day forward, the number of Christians amongst their ranks and other areas of government began to grow.
Tertullian confirms, in 197, in his Apology, the presence of Christians in the senate, the forum, and the military;and though he does not explicitly condemn the acts in this particular writing (which was intended to argue that Christians are good citizens and pose no threat to Rome), he also does not offer his support to these supposed members of the church serving earthly kings in this way. In fact, a rebuke of voluntary enlistment written by Tertullian just 15 years laterwill confirm his disapproval of the practice.
The growth of Christian presence in the military in the third century is also confirmed by the presence of two soldiers in Cyprian, apparently martyred during the persecution of Decius in 250, and a record of Galerius’s attempts to weed out the Christians from amongst his ranks.When the persecution broke wide, the Christians in the military were the first to suffer as a number of them are recorded as being executed.
But it is the Christian east which seems to have stood firm for a great deal longer. We have evidence that the Christians were far more inclined to reject taking up the sword in defense of the empire. One piece of that evidence is Origen’s rebuke of Celsus in 248, where he states plainly that where he comes from, “we do not fight under the emperor… although he require it.”
We will look at what Tertullian has to say about the episode with the sword in the garden of Gethsemane, and explore what it means for the church that Jesus commanded Peter to put away his sword.
Roland H. Bainton, Christian Attitudes Toward War and Peace:a Historical Survey and Critical Reevaluation, 67.
John Howard Yoder. Christian Attitudes to War, Peace, and Revolution, 53.
Hippolytus, The Apostolic Tradition, ch16.
Jonathan Hill, The First Thousand Years, 77.
Origen, Contra Celsum, VIII, 68-69.
Justin Martyr, Apologia I, 39.
Burge, Gary M. A Week in the Life of a Roman Centurion, 72.
Jonathan Hill, The History of Christian Thought,16.
Roland H. Bainton, Christian Attitudes Towards War and Peace,68.
Adolf Harnack, Militia Christi.117-121.
Tertullian, De Corona Militis, XI.
Roland H. Bainton, Christian Attitudes Towards War and Peace, 68.
Origen,Contra Celsum, VIII, 73.
Today I want to look at a strange verse in Romans. It goes like this:
“Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thristy, give them somethign to drink; for by doing this your wil heap burning coals on their heads.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
These verses were very peculiar to me in my youth. A strange mixture of emotions. Both call to love enemies and also an affirmation that we do indeed hate our enemies and have a desire for them to suffer. There even seems to be a moment of gleeful and narrow-eyed satisfaction as your enemy is overcome by anger at the very thought of you doing something nice for them!
I have heard this passage become a method of revenge instead of a path towards reconciliation. I’ve even used it as such in my early pastoral years. There should be satisfaction when the two warring parties are brought together, but this passage seems to encourage bringing the other to a point of burning rage. A victory in the public relations realm. They come off looking bad, and you come off looking like a hero, rising above their petty sinfulness.
The Christian, then, can walk away with everything: both the piety that comes with righteousness and the smug comfort of revenge. But deep inside we know that this can’t be Christlike. What kind of God would take pleasure in the shaming and seething bitterness that others might carry for us?
It seems to be promoting exactly what modern psychology warns against being driven by, “I’ll show them” instead of “I’ll make things right with them.” The former being an unhealthy pattern of behavior that leads ultimately to failure, and the latter being healthy and life-giving.
One piece that we are missing in our interpretation of this passage is the simple picture that a first-century reader might have in their minds as they read about “heaping burning coals” atop the heads of their enemies.
So where do we begin to interpret this passage? Simple, we always start by trying to understand the mindset of the writer before we do any actual interpreting at all!
Paul is quoting a Proverbs possibly written a thousand years before the time in which he lived. It is found in Proverbs 25:21-22
21 If your enemy is hungry, give him food to eat;
if he is thirsty, give him water to drink.
22 In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head,
and the Lord will reward you.
This was a time when Israel was likely still carrying with them the imagery of Egypt, from where they came. After generations of slavery, the symbols and patterns of Egyptian temple worship worked their way into the language, the worship rituals, and the spiritual writings of the people of Israel. And some of these ideas stuck with them all the way into the time of the New Testament.
The picture of “burning coals atop the head” actually finds its origins in the ancient Egyptian repentance ritual (J.D.G. Dunn, 1998). In those days in Egypt, someone who wanted to make amends with someone else would carry coals of fire in a dish on their head as evidence of genuine repentance. It was the emotional act of someone who wanted to be forgiven for the wrong they had committed.
In this scenario, the person with the coals on their head is not angry, they are not bitter or envious or you, and they are certainly not wallowing in shame.
This text is meant to be taken in a positive sense, not a negative one. Any idea that the other should be shamed falls out of line with the love and grace of the previous paragraph that is firmly rooted in Jesus teachings in the sermon on the mount.
This passage is a call to love and to genuinely seek the flourishing of those who would desire to harm us. The love that flows from the heart of God is the only thing that can genuinely seep into their hardened shell and bring them to a place of repentance. It is a proclamation of hope for all those who simply cannot find peace with another. Paul is saying “it can be done, commit yourself to love and hold out hope that one day they will come walking towards you in a public act of repentance, seeking your forgiveness and embracing you as a friend!”
Loving and serving your enemy is not some psychological form of revenge. It is not meant to piously raise you up above them in order to “win.” These types of interpretations allow the hate within us to remain and even to grow.
The point of humbling ourselves to meet the needs of our neighbor is to bring them to a place of softening and eventually repentance. The desire of Christ is always reconciliation. Paul understood it as an expression of outgoing love seeking only good for the enemy, and this is how we should see it as well.
Hello all. I took last week off to rest my brain as I felt like I needed to fill myself and not pour out for the day. As C.S. Lewis used to say “All things in moderation, including moderation”. Anyways, I have been pondering happiness and joy lately and I thought I would spend some time writing down my thoughts on where I believe these things come from, and some of the ways that our thinking can go wrong in regards to finding and maintaining a joyous attitude.
I want to start with a bit of a grizzly scenario.
Lets say that you find yourself alone and freezing to death, and you are becoming increasingly convinced that your demise is steadily approaching. How would you feel? I know it’s a dumb question, we would all feel pretty awful about the whole situation. Hopelessness is saddening, pain is never fun, and being alone while feeling hopeless and in pain only piles on more misery.
Now, lets say that the situation changed. Someone comes to you and gives you a jacket that was of such high quality that your body was warmed and your life was saved. How would you feel then? I dare say that you would probably feel quite happy. And the jacket had allot to do with that.
A jacket, when you are cold, makes you happy.
Now, if this statement is true, what could be said of ten jackets? Would ten jackets make you ten times happier? Would a hundred jackets make you a hundred times happier? Would a thousand jackets make you a thousand times happier?
No. It will not.
Happiness is not about having an overabundance of one thing. Studies have proven that, in fact, an overabundance of anything is almost always harmful.If you’ve read the recent reports about people “binge watching” netflix, you will find that this type of behavior actually causes depression. A well crafted show is a good thing. But binge-ing on a good thing is destructive and will actually bring about the opposite of what you are seeking. Happiness and genuine joy come, not from having more and more and more of a good thing, but from receiving just enough of the right thing.
We know this. Deep down inside, we all know this.
This fact, however, does not keep us from trying to acquire a whole bunch of the same thing. A good meal brings us joy, but too much of that meal will leave us miserable, overweight, with low self-esteem and will eventually contribute to an early death. Studies have also recently found that running as exercise is healthy in moderation. But in fact, people who run every day for more than 45 minutes have the same death rates as those who do not run at all.
You are happy when your needs are met, and become saddened when you live in too much abundance and excess. That drive that is inside of you for more and more is a clue that your other parts do not have what they need… namely, your soul.
Your soul has an insatiable desire for more. Theologian Hans Walter Wolff wrote a book called “Anthropology of the Old Testament” and in that book there is a chapter about the “nephesh”, the Hebrew word for “Soul”. In this chapter he repeatedly refers to nephesh as “The needy man”. Wolff uses dozens and dozens of passages of scripture to show us just how needy the soul is. It has a constant desire for more and more, but unless it is fed exactly what it needs, it is never filled.
Thomas Aquinas wrote:
“We are limited in every way but one: we have unlimited desire, unlimited longing”.
When the makers of Netflix added the “autoplay” feature last year, causing shows to play continuously, one after the other, they knew exactly what they were doing. They had stumbled upon the same thing that made Youtube so popular… one more video. And Facebook… one more scroll down. And the snooze button… one more quick snooze. But none of it ever gives us what we are looking for… in fact, it takes away what we want. We have all lost precious time because of our insatiable desire for “just one more”.
“Simplicity is freedom, duplicity is bondage. Simplicity brings joy and balance. Duplicity brings anxiety and fear.“, as Richard Foster wrote. The discipline of simplicity is an important one. I believe it was meant to remind us of these simple facts that we can readily observe, but rarely notice, every single day. Jesus said “Take heed, and beware of all covetousness; for a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions” (Luke 12:15). I don’t think that we really believe this anymore. It is so ingrained in all of us to literally judge a persons life by the abundance of their possessions… which is why we tend to despise the poor and homeless. This is also the viewpoint of those who would abort a mentally handicapped baby, because we believe that our lives consist of our possessions, and a fully functioning mind is considered among the commodities of a developed society. But Jesus tells us that our possessions, wether it be money, intelligence, willpower, or marketable skills, do not determine a life.
Our request to God should be:
Not for more intelligence, but the simple wisdom to make the decisions that we currently need to make.
Not for more money, but the providence to meet the current need.
Not for more time, but the diligence to live what time we do have to the fullest.
Not for more friends, but the love, compassion, and empathy to be the best possible companion to the few that we have.
Not for more, but for better and more meaningful: moments/relationships/conversations/meals/experiences/marriages/work/etc…
Feed your soul what it needs first, and let the body and mind follow that. When you find yourself wanting more more more… stop and ask yourself where that is coming from. Ask yourself if more has ever really satisfied. Observe all the ways in which more has been destructive in your life and the lives of those around you. And reject the idea that more of this or that will really satisfy.
Ask God for what he calls “Our daily bread”. It is not a lifetime supply. It is right here. Right now. It is all you need.
More on this next week.
On the American plains in the midwest in the mid 19th century it was commonplace for farmers to hear stories of farmers working in the fields when a whiteout blizzard appeared on the horizon. These storms were known to swallow up vast farmlands in a matter of minutes, and there were countless tales of farmers who died in their own yards unable to find their way in the midst of the storm. Many of them, less that a hundred yards from safety, never found their way home.
With this warning in mind, many of them learned that when the weather was still good, they needed a lifeline. They would fasten a rope from their porch to their barn. The rope would lead them home when they could not see where to go or which way to turn.
Likewise I can recall stories of people that I have known that that, when the storms have descended upon their lives, they were spiritually lost. I can’t count on both hands the number of people that I have seen who’s faith has died in the midst of storms. When skies were calm they seemed to live with such spiritual ease and surety. But when things went dark, they were lost. Their bodies lived on, but their faith was abandoned and left to die in the place where the storms arose.
Many people never fathom that life can turn very dark in the blink of an eye. That loss will come their way. That great pain and confusion will arise. That you might suddenly find yourself alone in a terrible storm.
This is typical of the young people and families that I work with. They are immortal, and nothing bad will ever happen. The thought is never entertained that storms will arise, and no preparation is made for the storms of life.
Your soul needs a rope.
You must build that rope through regular spiritual intake. The regular practice of spiritual disciplines, the quietness of solitude and meditation on scriptures and the teachings of Christ, a routine practice of sabbath. These are the things that will lay the groundwork for the path that your soul will take when things are dark.
Our regular practices during peacetime become habitual responses in times of conflict. A person will always long to return to the place where it has learned to gleam nourishment. And in the midst of the storm, the unfed soul will wander to and fro aimlessly looking for answers and finding nothing.
In 1873 Horatio Spafford received a telegram from his wife that would have slain the soul of many-a-man. He was a real estate investor in Chicago, successful by any standards. Two years earlier he had lost his only son to typhoid fever, and the following year lost every bit of real estate he owned in the great Chicago fire. He sent his wife and daughters home to England the following year while he stayed back and focused on rebuilding his life. Two weeks later he received the message that would change everything:
“Saved alone. What shall I do?”
The ship had suffered tragedy and went down with his remaining children, leaving only his beloved wife.
Spafford quickly boarded a ship headed for england and as he passed over the very spot where his daughters had perished, he penned the words of the famous hymn “It Is Well With My Soul”.
“When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou has taught me to say,
It is well, it is well, with my soul.”
Needless to say, this was a man who had prepared his soul, who had strung a rope to lead himself home again in times of storm and peril. And when those times came, he found his way to the comfort and safety and nourishment of his savior. He was able to drink of that well and his soul, though undoubtedly damaged and scarred, survived.
I wonder if mine would do the same, or if it might simply die in the storm. I wonder if my faith would survive, or if I would leave it behind.
The salvation of your soul is not just about the afterlife. It is about the present life. Salvation means healing and deliverance at the deepest level of who we are in the care of God through the presence of Jesus.
Sooner or later, your world will fall apart. For some of you, like Horatio Spafford, it will happen while you are still alive… but for most it will happen when we die. What will matter then is the soul you have constructed. It will be what you are left with. Your empires might fall, your loved ones, your accomplishments and your riches might be lost. But your soul will remain.
If you focus on building your life alone, then you will run the risk of losing everything. But if you build your soul, you will find that your life is filled with all of the things that you have always wanted. In addition, your soul and your life can be a light that others will find direction in, and a rope that can lead them, and yourself, home again.
“For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul?” ~ Jesus of Nazareth.
A few years back my wife and I bought a fixer upper and we worked on house until it was exactly what we wanted it to be, on the inside that is. One day we decided that we would start working on the yard and it was entirely different territory to us.
The yard had not been worked on in years, and the house is 85 years old. Which means that there are 8 decades of yard projects that had been buried like ancient ruins. One layer on top of another. The most prevalent object in each layer was rocks. Subsequently when we started raking the yard in preparation for making a garden we realized that there were far too many rocks to plant anything.
Slowly we started pulling out the rocks one by one and a couple of hours into it we realized that (1) it was going to take a whole lot of work to get all of the rocks out, and (2) when we finish we are going to have a really large pile of rocks to deal with. We never finished the project, and we now park our car on that spot.
But all of this gets me to thinking about those fields you see all over the world where farmers have plowed the earth and gone through all of the preparation and the work involved in preparing the earth for planting. I think of places that I visited on tour last summer in Germany, and I think of pictures of places like Ireland where the earth is separated into vast fields separated by knee high stone walls that stretch the entire length of the field. There are also roads between the fields that are laid with the same stones used for the walls. They meander between vast green gardens and golden fields of wheat. They now play a very important role in the protection and care-taking of the garden. They ensure that the garden is not trampled, and they keep out those that would trample the life-giving fruits of the well tended gardens.
Do you know where those stones come from? I used to assume that they were brought in just to be used as separation for the fields, but I have learned that those stones which now protect the fields and define the boundaries of the gardens were actually dug out and removed from the place where the garden now sits.
This is an amazing thought to me, and it seems that there is something to be gleamed (pun!) from that.
We all have an inner garden. Many of us would like to till and plant in the garden of our souls, but when we actually get in there with the right tools (spiritual disciplines, prayer, study, sabbath… etc) we start to find all kinds of things that need to be removed before anything of substance can grow.
Being a pastor, I interact with allot of people. And when you interact with allot of people, sometimes things can go wrong. People get hurt, and people hurt you. Sometimes it my fault and I need to acknowledge that and say “Here is something in my life that is a hinderance to growth, and it needs to be removed”. Other times the fault is not mine, but is cause by spiritual and moral shortcomings in the lives of those I am working with. When that happens, I need to point and say “That is something that is dangerous, or someone that is unteachable… etc”.
Yesterday I came across one of those emails that pastors sometimes receive. It was from a long time ago and it was angry. It was insulting and attacking and degrading. But wrapped up in it was truths that I needed to hear and things I needed to confront, both in my life and theirs.
Since then much time has passed and new information has been gathered and added to what I now know about that time. But perhaps the biggest thing that I have realized when coming across that old “stone” is that, instead of being a hindrance, these stones are now part of the walls and paths that are daily protecting the garden of my soul.
Some of the stones around the garden of my life and soul are used as barriers, walls. They have helped me set up healthy boundaries that protect me from unhealthy people. People that would trample my garden and destroy the life that is growing there. I have learned that there are healthy people who come and pour into me, and there are unhealthy people that are envious and destructive. In popular psychology they are called vampires (a term coined by Dr. Judith Orloff, and used by others such as Dr. Henry Cloud). They are people who need to be fed, but also need boundaries. I have learned that there needs to be well maintained paths that lead them to the wall where they can be fed from the garden in a way that is healthy and nourishing for both myself and them.
Some of the stone that I have pulled out have become paths that guide people. I point to the stones and say “Here are all of the ways that I have failed, that I needed to change, and the things that were keeping me from growth. Follow the path that I have laid, step on MY stones so that they won’t end up in YOUR garden!”.
My goal is to have a soul that is filled with an overabundance of life-giving food. Overflowing with love for the loveless, grace for the graceless, with peace for those who are constantly at war with the world around them. All of these things are found in Jesus of Nazareth who, many times in scriptures, is referred to as “The stone which the builders have discarded that has now become the cornerstone”.
Often times the things that we have discarded will end up being the same things that will ultimately lead to deliverance and freedom. Not only for you, but also for other people. Even the salvation of your soul was paved with the suffering of the Messiah. But the pain which you inflicted upon him through your sin became part of his path towards your very salvation.
So may you look back on the path that God has led you down and see that it was paved with great toil, but it was necessary to bring you where you are and where He has for you to go.