Chapter 11: The Church: Christ’s Peaceful People
When we turn to the other side of the ambiguity we find a church that taught and tried to obey Jesus’ commands for peaceful living, even the hard ones; a church that continued resolutely Jesus’ peacemaking ministry; a church that meditated deeply and seriously on the meaning of Jesus, and especially of his death and resurrection, for the proper understanding of peacemaking.1
Remembering Jesus’ Commands
As we saw in chapter 2, Jesus could be recognized during his lifetime as a man of peace, who refused to take revenge when mistreated, who did not fight in his own defense or permit others to fight for him, who commanded his disciples to follow his example of nonviolence, who wept because his nation would not follow “the things that make for peace,” The apostolic church kept that memory alive, tried to follow that example and obey those commands.
Love One Another
Jesus was concerned with the internal peace of the apostolic band. “Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another,” he said (Mark 9:50). The Johannine form of this command is “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another” (John 13:34).
The church tried and often failed. We reviewed some of those failures in chapter 10. But it never ceased to repeat the command. to remind itself of its destiny and goal: to be a peaceful community.
By giving up the privilege of eating meat for the sake of the weaker brother or sister, “let us then pursue what makes for peace” (Rom. 14:19). In marital disputes, “it is to peace that God has called you” (1 Cor. 7:15). In the excitement of charismatic worship, “God is a God not of disorder but of peace” (1 Cor. 14:33). Where there have been disputes, “put things in order, listen to my appeal, agree with one another, live in peace” (2 Cor. 13:11). If you claim to have the Holy Spirit, remember that “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace” (Gal. 5:22). Make every effort “to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:3). Let those tempted by youthful passions “pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace” (2 Tim. 2:22). As you wait for new heavens and a new earth, “strive to be found by him at peace” (2 Peter 3:14).
A passage to ponder is this one:
As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. (Col. 3:12-15)
There is almost no end to the passages that urge the internal peace, the mutual love of the church, including 1 Corinthians 12 on the mutual concern of the members of the body of Christ; 1 Corinthians 13 on love as the highest spiritual gift; Philippians 2 on the mind of Christ; 1 John 4 on the interconnection between love of God and love of brothers and sisters.2
Love Your Enemies
What are often spoken of as Jesus’ hard commands are those that concern his followers’ dealings with those who persecute and malign them, their enemies. The apostolic church remembered those, too. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink, for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Rom. 12:14, 17-21)
The close agreement of this passage with Matthew 5:38-48 and Luke 6:27-36 is remarkable. The agreement is not verbal. Romans was written before the publication of the Gospels and is not quoting the Sermon on the Mount. Rather, it cites two Old Testament passages as its authority (Deut. 32:35; Prov. 25:21-22). But the Romans passage is striking evidence that the loving, forgiving, nonretaliatory posture recommended by Jesus was a living, active memory within the apostolic church.
There is further evidence: “When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; when slandered, we speak kindly” (I Cor. 4:12-13). “See that none of you repays evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to all” (I Thess. 5:15). “Do not repay evil for evil or abuse for abuse; but, on the contrary, repay with a blessing. It is for this that you were called — that you might inherit a blessing” (I Peter 3:9; cf. Matt. 5:11-12; Luke 6:22-23).
Perhaps the most moving evidence that the apostolic church remembered and tried to live by the hard sayings and harder example of Jesus is the “imitation of Christ” by Stephen:
They covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. . . . While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he died. (Acts 7:57-60; cf. Luke 23:34)
The apostolic church was far from perfect, riddled with internal dissension and conflict. But there is no record that they ever resorted to force of arms to settle their disputes or that they ever used weapons to defend themselves against external enemies. They remembered the commands of Jesus.
Continuing Jesus’ Ministry
In chapter 9 we saw that Jesus interpreted the Old Testament in the light of the prophetic movement, and that his peacemaking ministry was a continuation and deepening of the ministry of the prophets. In like manner, the ministry of the apostolic church was a continuation of the peacemaking ministry of Jesus.
The Defense of Shalom
The prophets had seen the Torah, particularly in its provisions for the poor and landless, as instruction as to how shalom could be maintained and managed. Jesus had championed the same instructions as the primary defense of shalom. The early church continued this.
Care for the Poor
In the church at Jerusalem, care for the poor assumed the radical form of a community of goods! “All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need” (Acts 2:44-45; cf. the expanded description in 4:32-37). This policy does not seem to have spread beyond Jerusalem, and is not mentioned after Acts 6. Yet it survives in monasticism to the present day.
A particular constituency among the poor continued to receive special attention in the church: widows. They received a daily distribution of food in Jerusalem (Acts 6:1). They were a recognized group in the church at Joppa (9:39, 41). James writes, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world” (James 1:27). By the time of the pastoral epistles, widows were almost an “order” in the church, with definite rules as to who should be enrolled as a widow. It seems clear that those properly enrolled received the financial support of the church (I Tim. 5:3-16).
A less formal sharing of goods is pictured in the following passages:
If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? (James 2:15-16)
How does God’s love abide an anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? (I John 3:17)
There was sharing of goods from church to church. This became urgent in time of famine (Acts 11:27-30), but was welcome at any time. Paul recalls the final action of an important conference between himself (and Barnabas) and the leaders of the church at Jerusalem: “They asked only one thing, that we remember the poor, which was actually what I was eager to do” (Gal. 2:10). The purpose of the trip to Jerusalem during which Paul was arrested was to deliver an offering that had been taken up from many churches for the relief of the poor in Jerusalem (Acts 24:17; 1 Cor. 16:1-4; 2 Cor. 8-9).
The sharing of goods extended beyond the bounds of the church. This is implied in the frequent occurrence of the word “hospitality.” The word means “love of strangers.” It echoes the old Torah provisions for “sojourners” and aliens. Persons away from home or without means of support could expect and receive hospitality from the apostolic church (Rom. 12:13; I Tim. 3:2; Titus I:8; Heb. 13:2; I Peter 4:8).
Injunctions to the Rich
The writer of James became incensed when he saw the church forgetting God’s “tilt” toward the poor, giving great honor to the rich in their assemblies, and asking the poor to stand aside.
Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised those who love him? lcf. Matt. 5:3; Luke 6:201. But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court? Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you? (James 2:5-7)
Let the believer who is lowly boast in being raised up, and the rich in being brought low, because the rich will disappear like a flower in the field. For the sun rises with its scorching heat and withers the field; its flower falls, and its beauty perishes. It is the same way with the rich, in the midst of a busy life, they will wither away. (James 1:9-11)
Just as the prophets and Jesus condemned the rich for undermining shalom by taking advantage of the poor, so do writers in the apostolic church:
Come now, you rich people, weep and wail for the miseries that are coming to you. Your riches have rotted, and your clothes are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have rusted, and their rust will be evidence against you, and it will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure for the last days. Listen! The wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. You have lived on the earth in luxury and in pleasure; you have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered the righteous one, who does not resist you. (James 5:1-6)
Those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains. (1 Tim. 6:9-10)
As for those who in the present age are rich, command them not to be haughty, or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life. (I Tim. 6:17-18)
There is no peace without justice, without economic justice in particular. The apostolic church understood this and tried to practice it.
Love of Neighbor
Jesus felt that the principles of Torah on which shalom rests were summed up in Leviticus 19:18: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” This was alive and working in the apostolic church:
Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law. (Rom. 13:8-10)
For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Gal. 5:14)
You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. (James 2:8-9)
The Extension of Shalom
Jesus’ extension of shalom beyond the borders of Israel was quiet and at times ambiguous, but the church heard the risen Lord say, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations” (Matt. 28:19). In the old tradition of shalom for Israel only, the apostles asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:6-8).
Carrying out that commission involved the apostolic church in a severe internal struggle: should Gentiles become Christians? And if so, should they become Jews first, by the rite of circumcision?
This struggle is a central theme of the book of Acts. The Holy Spirit indicated that Samaritans (Acts 8:4-25) and an Ethiopian (vs. 26-40) were to be included in the church. Then came the crucial conversion of Cornelius, a Roman centurion, and members of his household (10:1-48). This was strongly challenged by the Jerusalem church, but successfully defended by Peter (11:1-15). The church at Antioch became the first fellowship where Jews and Greeks regularly worshiped together (vs. 19-26).3
The church at Antioch sent out Saul (Paul) and Barnabas to spread the gospel (Acts 13:1-3). They went first to Jewish synagogues, but when they were rejected there, they turned to the Gentiles (vs. 44-52). The success of the Gentile mission led to a head-on confrontation on the question whether they must first become Jews by the rite of circumcision. This was debated and presumably settled in Jerusalem in favor of a church that would include both Jews and Gentiles, without requiring circumcision of the latter (ch. 15).
But the issue did not die. Jewish opponents hounded Paul on his subsequent journeys. Again and again he “turned to the Gentiles” (Acts 18:5-8; 19:8-10). The circumcision issue marks his letters (Galatians, passim; Romans 2-4, 15; 1 Cor. 7:19; Philippians 3; Col. 2:11; 3:11). Nevertheless he clung to a vision of one church, embracing Jews and Gentiles in gracious shalom (Romans 9-11).
Paul hoped to extend the shalom of the church by action, even though words failed. The action was the great offering referred to above, raised among the Gentile churches, to be taken to the church at Jerusalem. Paul dreamed that the delivery of this offering would lead the Jewish Christians to long for their Gentile brothers and sisters, to pray for them because of the surpassing grace of God that they could now see had been given to them (2 Cor. 9:14). It did not turn out that way. Delivery of the gift led to Paul’s arrest and ultimately to his journey to Rome as a prisoner. There in Rome there was one more “turning to the Gentiles” (Acts 28:17-28). The attempt to extend shalom experienced more failure than success, but it had been earnestly pursued.
The Promise of the Kingdom
Jesus in his ministry held out to his hearers the promise of shalom in the form of the kingdom of God. The common impression that this dropped out of the teaching of the early church is not accurate. The record states that Philip preached the kingdom in Samaria (Acts 8:12); and Paul preached it in Ephesus (19:8; 20:25) and at Rome (28:23, 31). It was obviously preached more widely, for it was familiar to Christians in Corinth (1 Cor. 4:20; 6:9), Galatia (Gal. 5:21), Colossae (Col. 1:13; 4:11), and Thessalonica (1 Thess. 2:12; 2 Thess. 1:5). We have already seen a reference to it in James 2:5.
The kingdom of God is verbally identified with peace in Paul’s argument that Christians should refrain from exercising freedom in what they ate for the sake of weaker Christians who were not yet free: “For the kingdom of God is not food and drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Rom. 14:17).
More important than the references to the preaching of the kingdom was the hope for the kingdom that saturates the New Testament. It was this hope that enabled the apostolic church to be a subversively different community within the Roman Empire and to endure the suffering that came to it as a result.
Jesus regarded his suffering, his “reverse fighting,” as essential to his peacemaking ministry. The apostolic church likewise exercised its ministry through suffering.
Once Paul made a list of his own sufferings, including labors, imprisonments, floggings, often near death:
Five times I have received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I received a stoning. Three times I was shipwrecked; for a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from bandits, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers and sisters; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked. And, besides other things, I am under daily pressure because of my anxiety for all the churches. Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to stumble, and I am not indignant? (2 Cor. 1 1:24-29)
See also 2 Cor. 12:10; 2 Tim. 3:10-12.
More frequently Paul speaks for the apostolic band:
For I think that God has exhibited us apostles as last of all, as though sentenced to death, because we have become a spectacle to the world, to angels and to mortals. We are fools for the sake of Christ, but you are wise in Christ. We are weak, but you are strong. You are held in honor, but we in disrepute. To the present hour we are hungry and thirsty, we are poorly clothed and beaten and homeless, and we grow weary from the work of our own hands.
. . .We have become like the rubbish of the world, the dregs of all things, to this very day. (1 Cor. 4:9-13)
We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed. (2 Cor. 4:8-9)
As servants of God we have commended ourselves in every way: through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger in honor and dishonor, in ill repute and good repute. We are treated as imposters, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see — we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything. (2 Cor. 6:4-5, 8-10)
It was not only the apostles who suffered. The rank and file of the church also suffered. The first letter of Peter was written to a suffering church, which is why, as we shall see, it has so much to say about Jesus as the Suffering Servant.
Even if you do suffer for doing what is right, you are blessed. Do not fear what they fear, and do not be intimidated, but in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord. (1 Peter 3:14-15)
Since therefore Christ suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves also with the same intention (for whoever has suffered in the flesh has finished with sin), so as to live for the rest of your earthly life no longer by human desires but by the will of God. (4:1-2)
Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. (4:12)
After you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, support, strengthen, and establish you. (5:10)
The apostolic church rejoiced in and boasted of its suffering. Punished by the Jewish authorities, “they rejoiced that they were considered worthy to suffer dishonor for the sake of the name” (Acts 5:41). Driven out of Antioch in Pisidia, “the disciples were filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit” (13:52). Returning to places where they had suffered, “they strengthened the souls of the disciples and encouraged them to continue in the faith, saying, ‘It is through many persecutions that we must enter the kingdom of God’ ” (14:22). Flogged and imprisoned, Paul and Silas sang hymns at midnight in jail (16:25). They considered it a high privilege to suffer for Christ (Phil. 1:29).
It was the apocalyptic hope for the coming of the kingdom in its fullness that enabled the apostolic church to boast and rejoice in suffering.
We also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us. (Rom. 5:3-5)
We are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ — if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him. I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. (Rom. 8:16-18)
Rejoice in this, even if now for a little while you have had to suffer various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith — being more precious than gold that, though perishable, is tested by fire — may be found to result in praise and glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. (1 Peter 1 :6-7)
Rejoice insofar as you are sharing Christ’s sufferings, so that you may also be glad and shout for joy when his glory is revealed. (1 Peter 4:13)
It is evident that there is an almost mystical link between the suffering of Christians and the suffering of Christ:
We are . . . always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies. For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you. (2 Cor. 4:10-12)
I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead. (Phil. 3:10-11)
I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church. (Col. 1:24)
Clearly the apostolic church was more interested in enduring and understanding and using suffering than in dishing it out, either in self-defense or for revenge. It understood reverse fighting.4
The apostolic church may not have been as radical as Jesus in battling against the establishment,5 but it clearly continued his battle against unclean spirits and demonic powers. We find records of exorcisms in Acts 5:16; 8:7; 16:18; and 19:12. Just as Jesus’ more serious battle was with the strong one, with Beelzebul, the prince of demons, the ruler of this world, so the church’s more serious battle was with the cosmic powers of darkness.
The church understood the cosmic powers as initially part of the good creation of God (Col. 1:15-17). But these powers shared in the fall. They now seek to separate us from the love of God (Rom. 8:38-39). They enslave us (Eph. 2:2; Col. 2:20; Gal. 4:3). Even so, God can continue to use them for God’s purposes (Rom. 13:1).6
The very existence of the church is a sign that the sovereignty of these powers has been broken. And in order to continue to exist, to stand, the church must continually withstand the powers. It is not out to destroy the powers, but to avoid being seduced by them.7 Thus we read:
Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. (Eph. 6:10-17)8
When the writer speaks of “the whole armor of God,” he surely has in mind the description of God’s armor in Isaiah 59. There we read of “righteousness like a breastplate” and “a helmet of salvation” (Isa. 59:17), but there is a tremendous difference in the two pictures. Isaiah 59 belongs squarely in the old holy war tradition. Yahweh is displeased with the injustice that is rampant among the restoration community in Jerusalem (vs. 1-15). “The way of shalom they do not know, and there is no justice in their paths” (v. 8). Since no human being, no rod of the LORD’s anger, appears to champion justice, Yahweh will do it in person (vs. 16-19). Yahweh will put on garments of vengeance” and be clothed “in fury as in a mantle” (v. 17). Yahweh will wage warfare against people and nations that is both monergistic and antagonistic.
The writer to the Ephesians reclaims and transforms the holy war tradition. The followers of Jesus are to engage in warfare, and their armor includes the righteousness and salvation of God’s armor. But there is no vengeance or fury. Instead, there is truth, faith, the word of God, and whatever makes them ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. And their enemies are not blood and flesh, but rulers, authorities, cosmic powers, spiritual forces of wickedness.
We said in chapter 9 that the New Testament idea of demons and demonic structures is passing strange to the modern mind. In this passage the animistic idea of “unclean spirits” that can invade individual human bodies and distort individual human spirits is not in view; but the idea of demonic systems and structures that exert enormous power in the world, that can invade the body politic and other human corporeities and dehumanize them, is what is at stake.
I have suggested elsewhere that value-free technology, the military-industrial complex, and narrow nationalism might be modern examples of such principalities and powers.9 Hendrikus Berkhof suggests that human traditions, astrology, fixed religious rules, clans, public opinion, race, class, state, and Volk are among the powers.10 Walter Wink sees the powers as the inner aspects of institutions, their “spirituality,” the inner spirit or driving force that animates, legitimates, and regulates their outward manifestations.11 They are “the invisible forces that determine human existence”12 When such things dehumanize human life, thwart and distort the human spirit, block God’s gift of shalom, the followers of Jesus are rallied for a new kind of holy war. In such a struggle the church continues the peacemaking ministry of Jesus.
The apostolic church remembered Jesus’ peacemaking commands and sought to continue Jesus’ peacemaking ministry. It also rethought the meaning of Jesus for peacemaking, in the light of his death and resurrection. It moved beyond the faith of Jesus to its own faith about Jesus.
If we were correct in saying that Jesus more or less avoided the title “Messiah” and did not see himself as the fulfillment of prophecies of a just king who would manage and maintain shalom, then the early church made a radical reversal.
The climax of Peter’s sermon on the Day of Pentecost is:
Therefore let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified. (Acts 2:36)
This was a constant theme of the early apostolic preaching: “And every day in the temple and at home they did not cease to teach and proclaim Jesus as the Messiah” (Acts 5:42; cf. 3:20; 4:10).
According to Acts, Paul’s synagogue preaching had the same theme. He confounded the Jews who lived in Damascus by proving that Jesus was the Messiah (Acts 9:22). He did the same at Thessalonica (17:3) and Corinth (18:5).
In Paul’s letters and the other New Testament letters, Jesus Christ (Jesus Messiah) and Christ Jesus (Messiah Jesus) became the ordinary way of speaking, so much so that many modern readers have thought of these expressions as Jesus’ common name. This ordinary usage was so habitual that it may account for the seemingly careless way in which Christ is sometimes used in the Gospels.13
In his Gospel, Luke reclaims the Son of David theme. His infancy narrative goes to pains to state that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, the city of David (Luke 2:4, 11), of parents of the house and family of David (1:27; 2:4). The angel of the annunciation says that God will give Jesus “the throne of his ancestor David” (1:32). Zechariah sings of a mighty savior “in the house of his servant David” (v. 69). Matthew, in a different way, rehabilitates the Son of David title by associating it, not with warfare, but with healings (Matt. 12:23; 15:22; 20:31; 21:9, 15).14 Even Paul mentions Jesus descent from David (Rom. 1:3).
In contrast, Jesus’ chosen self-appellation, the Human One (Son of Man) scarcely appears outside the Gospels. Are we witnessing here a remilitarization of Jesus, a move from the Human One who receives the kingdom to a Son of David who wins it and maintains it by force of arms?
I think not. It is clear that the church is comfortable in calling Jesus the Messiah only after his death on the cross and his resurrection and exaltation, At this point he is no longer a prospective military conqueror like David. He is of no use to the Zealots,
The resurrection is Jesus’ coronation, As the Risen One, he is now the king, fulfilling the functions of the promised Messiah, providing order and stability for the people of God, establishing and managing their shalom.
The Servant of the Lord
We have seen hints that during his ministry Jesus identified with the Servant of the Lord in Isaiah 40-55. The early church makes the identification explicit.
The Ethiopian eunuch is reading Isaiah 53:7-8 when Philip joins him in his chariot. “The eunuch asked Philip: ‘About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?’ Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus” (Acts 8:34-35).
Matthew sees the healing ministry of Jesus as the fulfillment of Isaiah 53:4 (Matt. 8:17) and his peaceful withdrawal in the face of threats, his desire for anonymity, as the fulfillment of Isaiah 42:1-4 (Matt. 12:15-21),
In the advice to slaves given in 1 Peter there is an amazing quotation from, and paraphrase of, Isaiah 53:
For it is a credit to you if, being aware of God, you endure pain while suffering unjustly. If you endure when you are beaten for doing wrong, what credit is that? But if you endure when you do right and suffer for it, you have God’s approval. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps.
“He committed no sin,
and no deceit was found in his mouth.”
When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed. For you were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls, (1 Peter 2:19-25; cf. 3:14, 17-18;4:1)
In a few passages, the New Testament applies the title “servant” to Jesus. In the Greek record of the apostolic preaching, the word pais (child) is used, emphasizing that the servant is beloved (cf. Isa. 42:1):
The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, the God of our ancestors has glorified his servant (pais) Jesus, whom you handed over and rejected in the presence of Pilate, though he had decided to release him. (Acts 3:13)
For in this city, in fact, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, gathered together against your holy servant (pais) Jesus, whom you anointed, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place. And now, Lord, look at their threats, and grant to your servants to speak your word with all boldness, while you stretch out your hand to heal, and signs and wonders are performed through the name of your holy servant (pals) Jesus. (Acts 4:27-30)
In the early Christian hymn quoted by Paul in Phiippians, the Greek word for slave (daubs) is used to emphasize the servant’s humiliation and suffering:
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave (doulos),
being born in human likeness
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death
even death on a cross.
Jesus is both Messiah and Suffering Servant. What is astounding is not that these ideas lived quite separately in Jewish thought, but that the apostolic church put them together. Luke ventures to say that the church learned this from the risen Lord himself.
On the walk to Emmaus, Jesus says to the two disciples, “Oh. how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” (Luke 24:25-26). And to the assembled disciples he says, “‘These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you — that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled,’ Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer”’ (Luke 24:44-46).
The idea of a suffering Messiah is taken up in the apostolic preaching: “In this way God fulfilled what he had foretold through all the prophets, that his Messiah would suffer” (Acts 3:18). At Thessalonica, Paul, arguing from scripture, explains and proves “that it was necessary for the Messiah to suffer” (Acts 17:3). In his letters he speaks frequently of the suffering and death of Christ (the Messiah): Romans 3:24-25; 5:6, 8; 6:3, 8; 8:17, 34; 14:15; 15:3; 1 Corinthians 1:23; 2:2; 8:11; 15:3; 2 Corinthians 8:9; Galatians 2:19; 3:1, 13; 6:14; Philippians 3:10. The list could go on and on through most of the New Testament writings.
The Servant/Messiah is not only the Victim, who “never said a mumblin’ word,” giving his back to those who strike him and his cheeks to those who pluck out his beard, led like a lamb to the slaughter; he is also the Victor in a life-and-death battle. It is a battle with those mysterious superhuman and/or subhuman forces that we have already met in our discussion of the whole armor of God in Ephesians 6.
There is a dramatic word in Colossians that Christ “disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it [the cross]” (Col. 2:15).15 The astounding paradox, or we might even call it, reverently, God’s practical joke, is that it is precisely in offering himself as Victim that Christ becomes Victor. “Reverse fighting” wins! The helpless Suffering Servant divides spoil with the strong! The Stronger One overcomes the strong one through suffering! If the stupid rulers had understood this, they would never have crucified the Lord of glory (I Cor, 2:8). The hour of Jesus’ apparent defeat in death is the hour in which this world is judged and “the ruler of this world” will be driven out (John 12:31). “The Son of God was revealed for this purpose, to destroy the works of the devil” (1 John 3:8).
Interestingly, among the hostile powers defeated by Christ the Victor is the law, not the law as Torah, gracious instruction for the establishment and maintenance of shalom, but the law as command merits and ordinances, as a damning bill of particulars posted against us. Christ “erased the record that stood against us with its legal demands. He set this aside, nailing it to the cross” (Col. 2:14). Another hostile power is sin: “For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin, he condemned sin in the flesh” (Rom. 8:3), As the hymn puts it, “He breaks the power of reigning sin and sets the prisoner free.” Another is death: Christ abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel” (2 Tim. 1:10).
The power of Christ’s enemies is broken, but their defeat is not final, The battle goes on. A favorite text of the apostolic church was Psalm 110:1:
The LORD says to my lord,
“Sit at my right hand
until I make your enemies your footstool.”
This passage is reflected in 1 Peter 3:22, where Christ “has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers made subject to him.” And in 1 Corinthians 15:24-26 we read, “Then comes the end, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father, after he has destroyed every mler and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.”16
The imperial title “Lord” is closely associated with Christ’s victory over the powers. The rest of the Philippians hymn cited above reads:
Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
The knees that bend in heaven and under the earth are the knees of the unseen powers whom the Victor has conquered. The earliest Christian confession — “Jesus is Lord” (Rom. 10:9; 1 Cor. 12:3) — is a confession of that victory.
With the confession of Christ the Victor, Jesus the Lord, the apostolic church has reclaimed and transformed the ancient picture of the Divine Warrior. His warfare is not with people or nations, but with the powers that thwart and distort human life. “Lord Sabaoth his name, . . .And he must win the battle.”17
As Messiah, Jesus was Prince of Peace (Isa. 9:6). As Suffering Servant, “the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed” (Isa. 53:5, KJv). As Victor, he defeated the spiritual forces that work against peace. In short, Jesus not only practiced and taught and recommended peace, but in some profound way he brought about peace for us and for the world through his death and resurrection. He is the Peacemaker. The church wrestles with this arresting theological insight in the following passage:
Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. . . . God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life. But more than that, we even boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation. (Rom. 5:1-2, 8-11)
We remember that one aspect of the Warrior God remained constant in the prophets and in the teaching of Jesus: God’s antagonistic warfare against his rebellious and unfaithful people. The suffering and death of the Messiah is God’s offer of a cease-fire in that war, God’s offer of terms of peace. It proves that God’s love is even stronger than God’s wrath.
It opens the way for reconciliation, one of the most important and beautiful of all biblical words.18 Theologians have often preferred to speak of “justification,” and it is a precise, courtroom word. But “reconciliation” is a heart word, with the pain of estrangement and the joy of return written all over it. It is Hosca remarrying his wayward wife. It is Yahweh standing in the ruins of Jerusalem and the ruins of the old covenant, offering a new covenant written on the heart. It is the comfortable word to Jerusalem that her warfare is over. It is the father falling on the neck of the prodigal son. “Peace with God” (Rom. 5:1) and “reconciliation” (v. 11) are synonymous in this passage. Both offer a present reality – “this grace in which we stand” (v. 2), “the reconciliation now received” (v. 11), and both hold out a future hope –”of sharing the glory of God” (v. 2), of ultimate salvation (v. 10).
So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation; everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. (2 Cor. 5:17-19)
The old warfare between God and the world is gone; everything is new! The initiative in reconciliation is from God. It is not that the Suffering Servant/Messiah persuades God to be reconciled. God sets Christ forth as the reconciliation. God is at work in Christ. The scope of reconciliation is not limited to Israel or to the church. The world is reconciled, including all those enemies of Israel and the church against which the antagonistic warfare of God was formerly directed.
For in him [the beloved Son] all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.
And you who were once estranged and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his fleshly body through death, so as to present you holy and blameless and irreproachable before him. (Col. 1:19-22)
Here once again reconciling and making peace are synonyms. Peacemaking is not peripheral to Christianity, but anchored at its center, at the cross. And it involves not only the Colossian believers, who were once estranged and hostile in mind, not only the world as in 2 Corinthians, but “all things, whether on earth or in heaven.” By the cross not only are all earthly peoples and kingdoms reconciled to God, but peace is made with God’s most formidable enemies, the heavenly powers, the things “invisible whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers” (Col. 1:16)!
In the passages considered thus far, the reconciliation wrought through the Servant/Messiah is, if we may use a spatial metaphor, vertical. It is reconciliation between believers and God, between the world and God, between the heavenly powers and God. But this vertical reconciliation has horizontal effects. It brings about horizontal reconciliation between warring factions of humanity.
So then, remember that at one time you Gentiles by birth, called “the uncircumcision” by those who are called “the circumcision” — a physical circumcision made in the flesh by human hands — remember that you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolshed the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God. (Eph. 2:11-22)
In the view of the writer to the Ephesians the most serious division within humanity was the division between Jews and Gentiles. It was prototypical of all the other divisions that divide us. It was the astounding work of the Servant/Messiah to reconcile that division. This horizontal reconciliation was possible only when it coincided with the vertical reconciliation. “One new humanity in place of the two” was possible only when both groups were reconciled to God in one body through the cross” (vs. 15-16). Conversely, vertical reconciliation is incomplete if it does not impel us to the horizontal. “Peace with God” and war with other human groups cannot well coexist. Since in this passage “reconciling” and “making peace” are again synonyms, peacemaking between warring human groups can never be peripheral. The horizontal, as well as the vertical, is anchored at the very center of Christianity, at the cross.
The New Testament presents two moving symbols for what was effected by the cross. One is this: “The curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom” (Matt. 27:51; Mark 15:38; Luke 23:45). This was the curtain that hung before the Holy of Holies, that sacred place where only the high priest might enter, and he only on the Day of Atonement, covered with the blood of sacrifice. The cross removed the barrier between a holy Cod and sinful human beings, made atonement, gave access into that grace in which we stand.
The other symbol is the wall of separation, a wall in the temple beyond which Gentiles might not go. A piece of that wall has been recovered, with the inscription: NO MAN OF ANOTHER NATION MAY ENTER THE FENCE AND ENCLOSURE OF THIS TEMPLE, AND IF HE IS CAUGHT, HE HAS ONLY HIMSELF TO BLAME IF HIS DEATH ENSUES. The cross broke down that dividing wall between Jews and Gentiles, creating one new humanity in the place of two, thus making peace.
The apostolic church, in reflecting on Jesus the Messiah, the Suffering Servant, the Victor, came to understand him preeminently as the Peacemaker between God and humanity and between the divisions within humanity. This was expressed in the story that angels sang at his birth of peace on earth (Luke 2:14). It was expressed in the summary of Jesus’ ministry in the apostolic preaching: “You know the message [God] sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ” (Acts 10:36). It was expressed in the words “He is our peace” (Eph. 2:14), “Yahweh is peace,” said Gideon. “This one will be peace,” said Micah. “He is our peace,” said the apostolic church.
That church was caught up in the biblical ambiguity, as chapter 10 has evidenced.19 But, as is the case with Jesus, it is easy to see where the weight falls. That church did not wage war It was a subversively different community within the Roman Empire. As the pressures against it grew and persecution increased, it was the power of apocalyptic hope that enabled it to remain faithful.
1. Here I side with John Howard Yoder against the view prevalent among social ethicists today that the early church found Jesus’ sociopolitical ethics, including his teaching on peace, irrelevant and was interested in his life, death, and resurrection only as the basis for justification by faith; that whatever ethics the church taught was drawn from Hellenistic culture, particularly Stoicism. See The Politics of Jesus (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1972), pp. 15-21,163-192.
2. It is an interesting question whether we should include here the constant use of “peace” at the beginning and ending of the letters that went back and forth between Christians of the first generation. The standard greeting was “Grace to you and peace” (Rom. 1:7; 1 Cor. 1:3; 2 Cor. 1:2; Gal. 1:3; Eph. 1:2; Phil. 1:2;Col. 1:2; 1 Thess. 1:1;2Thess. 1:2; 1Tim. 1:2; 2 Tim. 1:2; Titus 1:4; Philemon 1:3; 1 Peter 1:2; 2 Peter 1:2; 2 John 3). “Peace” also figures at the close of several letters (Rom. 15:13. 33; 16:20; 2 Cor. 13:11; Gal. 6:16; Eph. 6:23; Phil. 4:9; 1 Thess. 5:23; 2 Thess. 3:16; Heb. 13:20; 1 Peter 5:14; 3 John 15). Were these conventional greetings? Not in the Greek culture of the first century. However, among Jews shalom had become something of a customary greeting. The distinctively Christian element was the designation of God the Father and Jesus the Messiah as twin sources of grace and peace.
3. Based on important manuscripts, the NRSV translates that the two groups were Jews and Hellenists (Greek-speaking Jews). This would scarcely have been noteworthy, since those two groups coexisted in the Jerusalem church (Acts 6:1). Moreover we have the firsthand testimony of Paul that the table fellowship of Jews and Gentiles at Antioch had disturbed the Jerusalem church (Gal. 2:11-14).
4. John Howard Yoder makes the interesting point that the imitatio Christi practiced and urged by the apostolic church is confined to suffering, to ‘reverse fighting.” There is no duty to imitate his itinerancy, his celibacy, his self-support as an artisan, his rural ethos. “Only at one point, only on one subject– but then consistently, universally — is Jesus our example: in his cross.” The Politics of Jesus, pp. 96-97; see also p. 134.
5. This is the position of Christopher Rowland in Radical Christianity (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1988), pp. 34-45. See our discussion in chapter 10.
6. See Hendrikus Berkhof, Christ and the Powers (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1962). Yoder, The Politics of Jesus, ch. 8, follows Berkhof.
7. Yoder, The Politics of Jesus, p. 153.
8. Two earlier Pauline passages may have suggested a discourse on the weapons of Christian warfare: 2 Corinthians 6:6-7 and 10:3-5.
9. In Christ the Peacemaker. Studies in Colossians (Atlanta: General Assembly Mission Board, Presbyterian Church in the United States, 1982), pp. 58-65. My remarks there were based on an address by Bruce Rigdon to a group of American and Russian church leaders, entitled “Taming the Principalities and Powers.”
10. Berkhof, Christ and the Powers, pp. 22, 25, 27.
11. See Walter Wink, Naming the Powers (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984), p.5 and passim.
12. Walter Wink, Unmasking the Powers (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986), title page.
13. See chapter 11, section “The Messiah.”
14. This has been noted by Christoph Burger in Jesus als Davidssohn (Gottingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1970) and by Ulrich Mauser in The Gospel of Peace (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1991), pp. 50-53.
15. Berkhof, Christ and the Powers, pp. 30ff., gives a profound analysis of this text. See also Wink, Naming the Powers, pp. 55-60.
16. Wink, Naming the Powers, pp. 50-55, suggests that Christ will “neutralize” rather than destroy the powers.
17. The understanding of Christ as Victor was brought forcibly to the attention of the theological world by Gustaf Aulén’s Christus Victor in 1931 (English translation reprinted many times by SPCK in London). Interestingly, as far as I can tell, Aulén made no use of the Old Testament on this point.
18. The central theme of the Confession of 1967 of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is reconciliation: “God’s reconciling work in Jesus Christ and the mission of reconciliation to which he has called his church are the heart of the gospel in any age.
19. For a very balanced discussion of the ambiguity of the New Testament church, see Christopher Rowland. Christian Origins (Minneapolis: 4 Augsburg Publishing House, 1985), pp. 272-285.