(continued from the previous post here)
Fourth, as we move from the united kingdom to the return from exile, the prophet Zechariah reinforces this perspective. Many people know the verse from Zechariah 4.6: ‘Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit’ says the Lord. But what is not always realised is that the re-establishment of security for the nations, and the reconstitution of worship, were both serious political issues facing real political and military threats from the surrounding nations. And we often fail to notice the full saying in the verse:
‘Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,’ says Yahweh of Hosts.
The title by which God describes himself draws precisely on that military imagery—God is Yahweh leader of Israel’s armies (the meaning of ‘hosts’). So the phrase is an emphatic denial of the military reality: God could draw on the power of military might, but what is needed will be achieved by the power of God’s Spirit.
This trajectory makes powerful sense when we look at the ministry of Jesus. In Matthew’s account of Jesus’ arrest in Gethsemane (Matt 26.47–56), we see a stark contrast between the way of military conflict and Jesus’ own approach. Those who come to arrest him come ‘armed with swords and clubs’ and Jesus presents himself and peaceful, willing and open. Jesus’ failure to lead an armed rebellion can be seen (in human terms) as the reason for Judas’ betrayal.
Note that this is not just a singular approach, but one which ‘fulfils the Scriptures’ (Matt 26.56) and ‘fulfils the prophets’ (Matt 26.56). As elsewhere in Matthew, this is not about simple fulfilment of a predictive verse, but Jesus taking up Israel’s story and completing it, in obedience to God’s will where previously his people failed to keep faith. This is where the contrast with Islam is striking. As the great scholar of Islam, Kenneth Cragg, highlighted, the climax of Muhammed’s life was the military conquest of Mecca. But the climax of Jesus’ life was to submit to his enemies and not resist the violence that was done to him.
In commenting on his 2012 book, Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road? Brian Mclaren argues:
I think Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, Atheists, and Christians have a choice – do they follow leaders who lead them into combat, conflict, domination, elimination, isolation, and so on … or do they follow leaders who lead them into contact, understanding, reconciliation, collaboration, and sharing of gifts?
For those of us who believe Jesus is the ultimate Word of God, and that his words are the most important words in the world for us, Jesus is clearly in the latter category.
Sixthly, this vision is completed in the final book of the Bible, one not usually associated with pacifism. This is not the place to address the question of the violence of Revelation’s imagery, but three features support this trajectory from the other Scripture. First, in Rev 11.18, in one of the several summary anticipation of The End, the 24 elders proclaim that ‘the time has come…for destroying the destroyers of the earth.’ In other words, the environmental damage of warfare and misuse of the earth will come to an end. Secondly, in the central chapter of the book (theologically), Jesus’ victory over Satan is depicted:
‘Now have come the salvation and the power
and the kingdom of our God,
and the authority of his Messiah.
For the accuser of our brothers and sisters,
who accuses them before our God day and night,
has been hurled down.
They triumphed over him
by the blood of the Lamb.’ (Rev 12.10–11)
But this victory has been delegated to Michael in the preceding section—though there is clearly conflict in the struggle, it is not between equals, and indeed is portrayed as though this struggle is beneath God, since his power is so much more than the power of Satan.
And at the very end of the book, the ‘kings of the earth’, who appear up till now to have been opposed to the people of God, and followed the beast (Rev 6.15, Rev 17.2, Rev 18.3, Rev 19.19) finally bring their glory into the New Jerusalem (Rev 21.24). Somehow or other, the lamb who was slain has not only won the victory; he has destroy the conflict and the contest and reconciled even the enemies of God to him. If ‘the lamb wins’ it is not just within the contest—it is a victory over the very idea of contest.
What does all this mean in practice for us? I don’t think quite adds up to an argument for pacifism (though many respectable people have made that case). But it does mean:
First, that God is willing to be involved in our conflict. He does not stand aloof and wait for us to develop our theology and get it all right; he is prepared to get his hands dirty and take sides. Just beware, though, that we are not always as right as we think, and God’s consistent record is that he takes the side of the downtrodden and the oppressed.
Secondly, even as God is involved in conflict, he is working to transform conflict—to open our eyes so that we see it differently, and have a fresh perspective on it.
Thirdly, his goal is to bring the whole world to the point where conflict is no more. ‘Reconciliation’ is one of the powerful metaphors for what God has achieved in Christ, and a powerful model for our role in the world.
This was material prepared for a sermon on Sunday 22nd June at St Nic’s Nottingham, and you can listen to the sermon on the church website.