Advent Lament: The Falwell Threat and the Apostolic Mission (Power and Suffering in the Acts of the Apostles)
My heart has been very heavy for the past few days, especially after hearing Jerry Falwell Jr.’s remarks recently in an address to the Liberty University students where he promoted the carrying of concealed weapons especially to “end muslims” if they pose a threat on campus. My immediate instinct was to say – this is not Jesus’ way of solving problems. When Jesus said, “My peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives” (John 14:27) he meant that Rome brings cheap and easy “peace” by violence – Jesus brings costly peace by the overwhelming power of love.
This past week I was slated to lecture on the book of Acts and I could not help but wonder – how did the apostles and the first Christians respond to persecution, violence, and murder? I read carefully through Luke’s Acts of the Apostles and here is what I discovered.
Thesis One: Luke portrays the enemies of the early Christians as cruel, hostile, and violent.
Acts is the story of the church, but it is more specifically the story of the church carrying out the mission of God and the good news of Jesus Christ in the face of bitter hostility and fierce opposition. Acts recounts the stoning of believers (5:23, 40), most famously Stephen, where his enemies “became enraged and ground their teeth” (7:54). Saul (later to become the apostle Paul) approved Stephen’s stoning and was known for “ravaging the church” (8:3). Once the apostle Paul was active in mission Jews soon plotted his death (9:23, 29). Eventually Paul was stoned nearly to death (14:19), and received severe flogging (16:23).
We could also point to Herod who “laid violent hands upon some who belonged to the church” and he had James executed by sword (12:1-2). Herod also interrogated one of his own prison guards who let Christians escape – and he put that guard to death (12:19).
There were, of course, many people who came to believe in Jesus and became followers of the Way (e.g., Acts 17:12), but by and large those who we would call “enemies” of the early Christians are painted by Luke with the broad brush strokes of volatility, hatred, malice, and bloodlust.
Thesis Two: The default mode of the apostles and the early Christians was non-violent peace, compassion, and forgiveness.
Luke is very consistent with his characterization of believers over and against his portrayal of their enemies. Their enemies plot, beat, and kill. Christians are never violent in the book of Acts. That is, when threatened, they never retaliate or attack, they certainly never kill their enemies. Their MO in the situation of persecution or confrontation is to hide or flee (e.g., Acts 9:25). Their attitude towards their enemies is forgiveness and compassion. Stephen, as he is being brutally killed, is able to shout out these words with his last breath: “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (7:60). [Imagine, of all the things we might say, even in a prayer, while our enemies are murdering us, divine forgiveness would probably not be one of them.]
Thesis Three: Some of the early Christians would have known how to violently oppose persecution.
Perhaps we might read Acts and think that the believers being persecuted were weak and untrained for combat. This may be true for some groups in Acts, but think about these factors. When the apostles are named at the beginning of the book, Simon is still know to the readers (several decades after Jesus’ death) as “Simon the Zealot.” If Simon is to be associated with the zealot party, he was a political revolutionist. In such a case, he probably would have known how to fight. Saul (turned Paul) oversaw many killings and, chances are, he also would have known how to protect himself and “give as good as he got” (see Acts 8:1-3). But Luke is quite clear that believers did not use violence to resist persecution.
Thesis Four: There is a single reason why believers did not retaliate or defend themselves with violence – their prime directive was to serve as witnesses to the gospel of Jesus Christ and anticipate repentance and transformed lives committed to the Lord Jesus.
Luke’s Acts begins with the promise from Jesus of “power from on high” to serve on God’s mission as his witnesses throughout the world (1:8). This first passage guides the rest of the story. Time and time again, Peter, Paul, Silas, and other witnesses dare to enter into dangerous territory amidst (often) hostile people – they strenuously seek to reason with Jews and Gentiles and bless them with the gospel. When Paul proclaimed Jesus in Lystra, men from Antioch and Iconium turned the crowds towards violence against Paul and they stoned him and dragged him out of the city supposing he was dead (14:19). Paul got up…and went back into the city. Why would he do that? What would compel him to put his life at risk again? According to Acts, the answer is simple – the people of God have been empowered to testify to Jesus Christ. They would not kill their enemies because the gospel compels them to save the lost, not destroy the lost. Their power, even the power of resistance, is in Word, not weapon.
This was a powerful truth for me to digest, as I finished working through Acts. There must have been times when the apostles and the early Christians felt rage and righteous anger against their persecutors, and wanted to “teach them a lesson.” What was stopping them? Those who are blessed and given the gift of the power and presence of the Holy Spirit are moved by one mission – to testify to Jesus Christ, the good news for all people. No matter how obstinate and wayward the person, Paul and Peter believed the gospel was for the lost and because no one was beyond hope, no one should be killed. You cannot testify to someone you have killed.
For Paul to “end” persecutors would be to violate the Acts testimony-mandate (proclaim-baptize-celebrate-repeat) and to reject the empowering gift of the Spirit. To wield the killing “power” of the gun is to repudiate the Power from on high – it is to turn the Acts of the Apostles into the Axe of the Pagans.
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