Did Yeshua teach pacifism?

All interests are subservient to the eternal interests of the Kingdom of God.

Matthew 5:39 – But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.

The concept of forgiveness runs strong within the teachings of Yeshua. In order to not retaliate to aggressive behavior or a personal affront requires a measure of self-control and maturity to allow the insult, and sometimes injury, to pass.

But to what extent does the Bible teach that should believers remain non-retaliatory? Should a father protect his family from home intruders? Should a believer be engaged with a national military conflict? These are difficult questions because the Bible speaks to many different types of situations and has been used to support many different positions on this topic.

Even though I am a veteran of the American military, as I have grown in my biblical understanding over the years, I have gravitated toward a more pacifistic stance. From a philosophical standpoint, the idea of believers serving in opposing military forces would mean that believers are essentially killing other believers for the sake of their respective national interest. This would mean that the national interest has taken precedence over the universal spiritual kingdom of God. Under any other circumstance, believers would not be pitted against each other in a fight to the death.

In fairness, though, I must also admit that the passage quoted above about turning the other cheek is contextually about personal responsibility, and is not an absolute morality standard. If we believe love is the primary response for believers, we must remember that Yeshua also taught that the greatest love for others is self-sacrifice. Yeshua used the example of the good shepherd who is willing to lay down his life for the sheep; however, as King David was famous for, that was typically in protecting the sheep from the wild animals, not other humans.

But is that self-sacrifice to be exhibited in acts of aggression toward others? Is it morally defensible from the Bible to kill a human aggressor in order to save others?

1 John 3:16 – By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers.

Once again, John is not setting up a universal morality standard here, as the context of this passage is in ensuring that believers are diligent in providing for one another’s physical needs. In that sense, we should put the interests of others above ourselves.

1 John 3:15, 17-18 – Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him. … But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.

Paul reiterates this point, as well.

Philippians 2:3-4 – Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.

If I was to land upon a more definitive position regarding what might be called biblical messianic pacifism within the Kingdom of God, I would offer the following: in personal quarrels, forgive and do not retaliate. When faced with endangerment of others not able to protect themselves, placing oneself as a non-lethal protector and defender is justifiable and honorable.

Some may argue that God is not against war, as he commanded the Israelites to kill and essentially exterminate the Canaanites. But we must remember the campaign against Canaan was God’s judgment upon those nations for their detestable idolatrous practices, and was not primarily about Israel’s interests. Moses made this abundantly clear as he spoke to the Israelites before they crossed the Jordan to take the land.

Deuteronomy 9:5-6 – “Not because of your righteousness or the uprightness of your heart are you going in to possess their land, but because of the wickedness of these nations Yahweh your God is driving them out from before you, and that he may confirm the word that Yahweh swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob. Know, therefore, that Yahweh your God is not giving you this good land to possess because of your righteousness, for you are a stubborn people.”

God’s use of Israel in war was a measure of physical judgment upon the Canaanites that was a metaphorical baseline within the over-arching biblical narrative: God’s enemies would be vanquished and his universal kingdom would be established in their place. However, to presume any war fought today is a righteous and holy war against idolatrous barbarians because of their wickedness and rebellion against God would require mental gymnastics beyond the scope of reason.

How we apply Yeshua’s admonition to turn the other cheek may lead us to differing conclusions regarding personal defense and national interests. But we must remember that even national interests are subservient to the eternal interests of the Kingdom of God. Doing what is biblically “correct” in any situation requires a holistic view of the entire Bible, not just cherry-picking proof-texts to support a personal or public agenda.


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