Whenever the teachings of Jesus are examined it is important not to divorce Jesus from his historical setting. As Bart Ehrman points out in his lectures, Jesus does not spend much time teaching monotheism. Jesus is preaching to a Jewish audience. As such, Jesus does not have to lecture them about monotheism. Everyone already was under the assumption of monotheism.
Likewise, Jesus does not talk much about circumcision or temple sacrifice. Jesus did not disagree with his audience and had no reason to address those issues. Instead, Jesus’ ministry is best seen as apocalyptic in nature. Jesus did not teach morality (he did not teach people the nuances of morality). Instead Jesus sought to prepare his audience (Israel) for the coming Kingdom of God. The message was clear: repent of your sins and be saved. Along with this message, Jesus taught his audience how to prepare for this coming Kingdom: Abandon your family. Abandon your wealth. Abandon your regard for your own life. The expectation of his audience would be that they would be rewarded 100 times what they gave up.
Within the apocalyptic context, it was clear that Jesus’ hearers needed to take drastic action to advert the imminent wrath of God. As Jesus said: “It is better for you to enter life with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into the fire of hell.”
God was to be both judge and savior to Israel. To Jesus, God was soon returning and God’s angels would round up the wicked of the earth, slaughtering them all:
Mat 13:38 The field is the world, and the good seed is the sons of the kingdom. The weeds are the sons of the evil one,
Mat 13:39 and the enemy who sowed them is the devil. The harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels.
Mat 13:40 Just as the weeds are gathered and burned with fire, so will it be at the end of the age.
Mat 13:41 The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all law-breakers,
Mat 13:42 and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
Mat 13:43 Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. He who has ears, let him hear.
This ultra-violent message resonates with standard Jewish eschatology.
Isa 13:9 Behold, the day of the LORD comes, cruel, with wrath and fierce anger, to make the land a desolation and to destroy its sinners from it.
Jer 46:10 That day is the day of the Lord GOD of hosts, a day of vengeance, to avenge himself on his foes. The sword shall devour and be sated and drink its fill of their blood. For the Lord GOD of hosts holds a sacrifice in the north country by the river Euphrates.
Eze 30:3 For the day is near, the day of the LORD is near; it will be a day of clouds, a time of doom for the nations.
Eze 30:7 And they shall be desolated in the midst of desolated countries, and their cities shall be in the midst of cities that are laid waste.
Amo 5:16 Therefore thus says the LORD, the God of hosts, the Lord: “In all the squares there shall be wailing, and in all the streets they shall say, ‘Alas! Alas!’ They shall call the farmers to mourning and to wailing those who are skilled in lamentation,
Amo 5:17 and in all vineyards there shall be wailing, for I will pass through your midst,” says the LORD.
Amo 5:18 Woe to you who desire the day of the LORD! Why would you have the day of the LORD? It is darkness, and not light,
In Jewish eschatology, God was to return to Earth, kill the wicked, and establish Israel as the primary rulers of the Earth. God would rule from Jerusalem and the pagan nations who remained would bring tribute. This is not a nice and peaceful image. The image is of impending doom for the wicked. Jesus taught this message wherever he went:
Mar 1:14 Now after John was put in prison, Jesus came to Galilee, preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God,
Mar 1:15 and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.”
God’s kingdom was at hand. This was Jesus’ primary message. This is not one of peace and non-violence. Jesus’ mindset was apocalyptic. To Jesus, his audience was to repent of their sins or die a violent death:
Mat 25:31 “When the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the holy angels with Him, then He will sit on the throne of His glory.
Mat 25:32 All the nations will be gathered before Him, and He will separate them one from another, as a shepherd divides his sheep from the goats.
Mat 25:33 And He will set the sheep on His right hand, but the goats on the left.
Mat 25:34 Then the King will say to those on His right hand, ‘Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world:
Mat 25:41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.
We see this concept in many of Jesus’ parables. In the parable of the wedding guests, the King kills those who defy him. The King also imprisons any who fail to live up to his standards. In the parable of the talents, the nobleman gathers together his enemies and kills them. In the parable of the husbandmen, the vineyard owner kills the evil servants. In the parable of the weeds, the weeds are tossed into the fire. In the parable of the barren fig tree, the tree is chopped down. Jesus taught explicit Old Testament eschatology, and this was his primary message.
If Jesus was a primarily moral teacher (as commonly claimed), it would be odd that his message was limited to Israel. If Jesus overturned concepts concerning the law it would be odd that he enjoyed any semblance of popularity (did Jesus’ critics even claim that Jesus overturned the law?). The teachings of Jesus, then, have to be first and foremost understood as Jewish in nature. If there is a way that Jesus’ teachings can be viewed as aligning with Old Testament theology, that should be the default position: Jesus taught Jewish theology. His teaching did not overturn Jewish law, but expanded upon it.
The starting stance for understanding Jesus’ position on pacifism is understanding the Old Testament’s position on violence. As one would expect from a warrior race who engaged in wars of conquest, the Old Testament condones violence. One of the first governmental acts of Israel is to stone to death someone working on the Sabbath:
Num 15:32 Now while the children of Israel were in the wilderness, they found a man gathering sticks on the Sabbath day.
Num 15:35 Then the LORD said to Moses, “The man must surely be put to death; all the congregation shall stone him with stones outside the camp.”
Num 15:36 So, as the LORD commanded Moses, all the congregation brought him outside the camp and stoned him with stones, and he died.
Jesus should not be expected to repudiate this act, or the vigilantism that the Old Testament established in absence of the human monarchy. Death was a common penalty for violating God’s laws. And Jesus claims time and time again to uphold the law.
Some of Jesus’ statements have been misconstrued as pacifism. Such statements need to be understood in the context of Jesus’ apocalyptic ministry. Reza Alsan writes in Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth:
In any case, neither the commandment to love one’s enemies nor the plea to turn the other cheek is equivalent to a call for nonviolence or nonresistance . Jesus was not a fool. He understood what every other claimant to the mantle of the messiah understood: God’s sovereignty could not be established except through force. “From the days of John the Baptist until now the Kingdom of God has been coming violently, and the violent ones try to snatch it away” (Matthew 11: 12 | Luke 16: 16).
That is not to say that Jesus thought his rag-tag band of disciples was going to defeat Rome. On the contrary, he assumed God would do it for them. That is, after all , what God had always done for the Jews. It was God who drowned Pharaoh’s army, not the Israelites (Exodus 14). It was God who brought down the walls of Jericho, not Joshua’s trumpet (Joshua 6). God destroyed the Amalekites and the Jebusites. He hurled stones from heaven upon the Amorites, killing every last one of them (Joshua 10). He exterminated the Canaanites so the Jews could have this land in the first place. God had defeated Israel’s enemies in the past and he would do so again, but only if his followers remained faithful and zealous for the Lord.
Aslan is correct. Jesus was not looking for a general Jewish insurrection (although he may not have opposed a successful one). Instead, Jesus was looking for God to do the heavy lifting. Assumedly, once the army of angels began their slaughter of the wicked, believers could join their ranks. Until that time, Jesus’ hearers were to wait and pray to hasten the Day of the Lord (2Pe 3:12).
In short, Jesus’ message was primarily violence. To Jesus, the right and proper destination of the wicked was a painful and swift death. It was not inclusive pacifism (Jesus did not “tolerate” sin), not of the brand that is popular in modern America. Jesus’ calls “not to resist oppressors” was definitely not being advocated as a timeless value to apply to all places and times. It generally is not applicable to the American ideal. For that, the Old Testament should be sought as the guide for rightly and wrongly distributed justice.